How Can I Convince My Kids to Eat Healthier?

by Janet Nash, Registered Dietitian

We’ve seen it happen a thousand times: a child moving food around the plate, but not into his or her mouth. Enthusiasm for the meal continues to diminish, as they slouch lower in the chair, claim to be full and excuse themselves from the table. But 30 minutes later, they’re starving and requesting a new dinner, more suitable to their palate.

There are many variations on this theme. Some children throw tantrums until they get what they want. Others refuse to eat anything that’s not from their own personal food groups (hotdogs, hamburgers, mac and cheese, anything sweet). This puts parents in an awkward position: choose between family harmony or a healthy diet. Here are a few tips that can help you navigate these treacherous currents.

Lead by example

While good eating habits may not inspire children to join in, poor eating habits will certainly set them on the wrong path. Offer a variety of lean proteins (such as chicken, turkey breast slices, low fat cheese, low fat yogurt, eggs, and even peanut butter), ample fruits and vegetables and lots of water. If you model it, over time, your children will understand that a piece of fruit is a great afternoon snack. The more consistent you are, the better you’ll be able to guide your kids.

Develop strategies

Explore ways to help your children succeed. Sometimes that means choosing meals that are both healthy and kid-friendly. Other times it could mean cooking two different types of vegetables and having your children select one of them. Better yet, engaging your kids in both the selection and preparation of the meal will instill a sense of ownership and pride. However, be careful about cooking several meals. You don’t want to be a short-order cook and have to appeal to each child’s individual preferences.

Be patient

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a mature palate. Introduce new foods slowly. Kids need to try things a few times before they learn to like, or even tolerate, them. Require a “no thank you” bite. Most children will take one bite of almost anything. Eventually, they will take second bites, and perhaps even finish the helping.

Market effectively

I know parents who sold their kids on a Spanish omelet by calling it “French fry pie.” If one of your children’s heroes is known to eat healthy, leverage that relationship when selling the menu. You know what appeals to your kids; modify your descriptions to make things more appealing.

Be consistent

Children are born negotiators and will work tirelessly to find a loophole. Don’t give them one. On the other hand, making the rules too stringent can back you into a corner and leave everyone unhappy. The child who gets zero sugar at home will find ways to get their fix at school and elsewhere. Set reasonable rules and provide healthy boundaries. This will allow children the freedom to learn and thrive.

For example:

  • Allow half a cup of ice cream with their choice of fresh fruit topping two times a week
  • Include two “fun size” chocolate treats along with a sandwich and fresh fruit for lunch
  • Share popcorn at the movies

These are appropriate and can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Remember food is one of life’s many pleasures. Keep eating fun; consume treats in moderation; and stay physically activity.

This health and wellness tip was provided by Janet Nash, a registered dietitian who specializes in diabetes and endocrinology at Scripps Clinic Center for Weight Management.