Every parent knows that incorporating healthy food options into their child's diet can be challenging. Let's face it, broccoli has a hard time competing with the heavy fats, additives, starches and sugars that excite the brain in the standard American diet.
In our office, we have a saying that we tell customers at least once a day: "You can't out-supplement a poor diet". Whether you're trying to improve your own eating habits or just trying to get your three-year-old to eat something other than chicken nuggets, here are some of our tried-and-true tips for increasing the overall nutrient value of your family's diet.
- First Things First. Keep plenty of healthy food options on hand, and offer them often. Kids rarely open the fridge and say, “Mom, can I have some celery?", but if it's already prepared and set out for them, they'll gobble it up. If it’s the first thing they see, they don’t even have to think to ask for anything else. Use veggies as a pre-dinner appetizer-- as your kids are waiting for dinner to finish cooking, slide some veggies on their plate. Studies show that vegetables are more likely to be consumed when they're not in competition with another food on the plate. Eating veggies before dinner can make a big difference because it's not competing with that chicken parmesan for attention.
- Continue to introduce (and re-introduce) healthy foods. If your kids don’t like a new food, don’t give up! Studies show that toddlers can be made to like a new food by introducing it 5-15 times. Ask your child to eat a pea-sized morsel of the food you want them to eat. Even licking counts. Do this again and again, and eventually they should develop a taste for it. Consistently include a fruit or vegetable as part of every meal or snack. For example, you could put berries on cereal, add a piece of fruit or small salad to your child’s lunch, use vegetables and dip for an after-school snack, or add a vegetable or two you want to try to the family’s dinner.
- Start at the beginning. Did you know that babies who are breastfed are statistically less likely to be picky eaters? Studies show that by the age of six, children who were breastfed like vegetables more and eat almost twice as many as those who were formula fed. Breastfed babies get used to different tastes from an early age because a mother’s milk changes in flavor depending on what she has eaten. If you're unable to breastfeed, don't stress, you'll just need to be a little more persistent at consistently offering healthy foods.
- Be a role model. Eat more fruits and vegetables yourself. Kids really do pattern their behavior after what they see in the people they look up to. If you're serving veggies but not eating them yourself, you'll have a hard time convincing your picky eater that they're delicious.
- Mix veggies into favorite meals. The nice thing about vegetables is that they are so versatile. Add veggies to dishes your kids already like, like tacos, pizza, or spaghetti. You can add zucchini noodles to your pasta, swap out veggie tots for tater tots or fries, use cauliflower in pizza crust, or sneak it to rice or mashed potatoes. Try out vegetarian recipes for spaghetti, lasagna, chili, or other foods using vegetables instead of meat. Add shredded carrots and chopped spinach to casseroles and sauces, use veggies as fries, mix diced mushrooms into your burger... the possibilities are endless. Be sneaky if you need to! Adding pureed veggies to their favorite dishes will result in more nutrition without a fight.
- Changing presentation can go a long way. Your kid doesn't like steamed veggies? Then try shredding them in a salad, eating them pickled, or roasting them. Try veggies warm, cold, frozen, roasted, steamed, sautéed, with dip, in different shapes, etc. Roasting vegetables brings out their natural sweetness, and may make them more appealing to kids. Adding just a little bit of butter or a different seasoning can make all the difference in flavor. Give your children lots of options for salad toppings such as nuts, seeds, different veggies and cheeses, even fruit or berries, and step outside the box with dressings as well!
- Eat as a family whenever possible. Research shows that kids eat more vegetables and fruits and consume less fried foods and sugary drinks when they eat with the entire family. As an added bonus, children who eat with family also have better academic performance, are less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol, and tend to experience better overall mental health.
- Make it fun. Appearance is important. Try arranging your healthy foods to create a face, use a cookie cutter to make animal shapes or letters, or have a color-themed meal in which everything you serve is a certain color! Getting creative can make healthy foods more appealing to children. Kids love to eat veggies when they can dip them in a flavorful dip or sauce, such as hummus, ranch dip, salsa, guacamole, or nut butter. Studies have found that kids are more likely to eat their veggies if they’re served with dip. Have your child play with their food! Make those mashed sweet potatoes into a volcano, or make broccoli the superhero in a dinnertime story.
- Enjoy the whole experience. The more kids are involved, the more willing they are to try their creations. Kids love exerting power and control, it makes them feel like grown-ups. So take them to the grocery store with you and let them chose something new from the produce section. Then, have them help you prepare their choice. You’ll be surprised how often your kids will opt for a healthy food option when they feel the decision is theirs. Children who are involved in the preparation of foods, such as vegetables, develop more positive attitudes towards and preferences for those foods. Growing a garden and keeping kids involved from seed to table fosters a sense of pride and excitement for healthy foods. In addition to all of the health benefits of gardening, learning about where food comes from connects children with what they eat. Plus, fresh-picked produce tastes a thousand times better than store-bought!
By choosing health-promoting foods, you can establish good nutritional habits in your child that will last for the rest of his or her life.
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