I often get asked if my kids REALLY eat the food I post about. And my response is yes, they really do! So the next question that usually follows is how do you get your kids to eat so well? That question can be complex as we have had to work through food allergies that played to our advantage in changing my kids diet. If you can see that silver lining with having food allergies!! However, regardless of that there are some key steps and common denominators that need to take place to make change.
Ever since having my first child, I’ve been passionate about learning about real whole-food nutrition. I first started following the blog 100 days of real food right after my son was born (June 2011). The blog had just taken off and I really took in a lot of the steps on how to read labels and discern judgement over “healthy” labeled packaged food. I read up on health books including Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” and really just completely altered my viewpoint on what it meant to be a healthier eater. I will always be thankful for that learning curve as it was a real eye opening experience. Shortly after my initial research, I experienced some health challenges that continued my search for learning about how food affects our bodies and health. Fast forward to 2015, our son had been experiencing tummy aches, bad inflamed skin/eczema and cracked/bleeding feet. We found out he had some food allergies, the big one being gluten.
Changing our diet was not an option. We had to make very specific changes to help my son feel better and function better. He was able to directly correlate his tummy hurting to what he ate. He also could feel and see the difference in his skin versus when he would have flare ups. At just a young age of 4, my son learned the concept of how food can affect the way you feel. It was enough for him to be willing to cooperate with most of the changes we made in our diet. However, I realize this isn’t the case for everyone, so the resistance you get from change will vary. I do whole heartedly believe that even if you don’t have a motivating factor like a food allergy, that once change is implemented consistently your child will overall feel better generally speaking.
We have made many many changes in our diet over the last two years. We’ve had to remove 1) gluten and dairy to 2) all grains, dairy and no sugars except honey to 3) all grains, dairy, no sugars except honey and NO packaged foods except a handful of emergency staples. Now this is extreme because we are on a temporary gut healing diet called GAPS. And read this clearly, I’m not suggesting this as the reason behind this article. I’m merely showing that we have had to make significant changes, so to validate that the steps listed below have worked for us and to very extreme changes. My hope is that regardless of where you are in your life, that you will find encouragement and helpful tips/strategies to make changes. Because at the end of the day as parents we all want to do what is best for our kids. That will look and be different for everyone, so take these steps as ideas and implement according to what you feel is best for your family.
It is important to remember that change does not happen overnight. So do not set unrealistic expectations and get discouraged if your kids don’t start making changes immediately. New food has to be re-introduced multiple times before a child will decide that they like it. And even at that, if your child is use to the American Standard Diet that is full of processed and packaged foods their palate will be desensitized. Yes, this is a real thing. There are additives in processed food that make them addictive, so that you crave them. Your taste buds literally cannot taste the delicious flavors of natural foods because they are so accustomed to the artificial stuff. There will be a curve of appeal that has to take place. The more processed foods and sugar you take a way, the more the palate will start to taste and enjoy real whole foods. Beyond that, change is just hard in general, it may put them off because they aren’t getting what they want, so of course resistance will be there. But don’t loose heart. This isn’t a sprint or race. This is a long journey that has to be taken day by day to lay the foundation for a healthy palate and relationship with food. And it will happen if you are consistent and perservere through all the tantrums, bad attitudes and wasted food at first.
These are the key steps that we took that we learned through our own journey. Some of these can be done in conjunction with one another and some are separate steps. These are in no particular order.
- Introduce one new food at a time. When you first start making changes, do one new food on their plate keeping the remaining foods typical to what you normally make. This will come at them more subtly and you can ask them to try the new food. I would ask my children to take 2-3 bites of it until they learned that they liked it. But at first you may only get 1 bite out of them.
- Put more on the their plate then they actually need to eat. This will give you negotiating power with them. Kids want to feel like they have a say so in what they eat. This way you can talk with them and decide on how many pieces/bites of something they should have. They feel empowered and are happy to be apart of the decision. For the record, as a sidebar note, we do not let our kids have a say so in a lot of areas of their general well being because of course we are parents for a reason. However, for purposes of creating a healthy relationship with food, we let them voice their opinion on what they think they should eat. For example, I’d put 5 pieces of cut up meat, a small scoop of potatoes and 5 asparagus stalk. So in this scenario, I know my son will eat all the meat because it is his favorite, so we were negotiating how many bites of potatoes and how many stalks of asparagus. My son would say how many asparagus do I have to eat? I’d respond with all of it and then he’d argue a rebuttal like 1 asparagus. We’d kind of playfully go back and forth until we had decided he needed to eat 3 stalk. If he ended up eating more then I wanted then great, but if he ate the negotiated amount then we both walk away happy. Sometimes he will ask for seconds on meat before he finishes his veggies and we will not give it to him until he eats the veggies we agreed upon. I grew up under the “clean your plate” mentality and I still have issues with wanting to eat all the oversized portions that can be served. So for my family, I am trying a different approach to set a standard of what needs to be eaten and then let my children decide how much after that until they are full/satiated.
- No snacks before dinner. Quickest way to kill the opportunity to try a new food is giving a snack too close to dinner. The hungrier your child is before eating a main meal, the more likely they are to try a new food.
- If they don’t eat their meal serve it for the next meal. This is one of those that will come with time, not necessarily what you want to start with when making changes. Once your child has made significant changes in their diet then you can start to implement this. This can work for any main meal. For example, this scenario usually happens to us at lunch. The kids have eaten a good breakfast, then a small snack, then comes lunch. They will hardly touch lunch, so we move on about our day. Then an hour later they want a snack. I give them their leftover lunch and they have to eat that before they can get their snack. This isn’t me being mean or trying to force them to eat more then they should. It’s the fact that I know my kids, they’ve chosen to be picky at that moment and I’m not giving in to that game. It opens the door for them to think I don’t have to eat my meal, Mommy will give m a snack in a little while. This will be an area you will have to approach discerningly. But it’s a great tactic when you know your kids are just playing games.
- Do not fix separate meals. Ok, I can see the eye rolling at me now. The thoughts of you just don’t understand my kids or my situation. But hear me out on this one. This is not me coming with judgmental advice, this is just tough love coming from a Momma who’s been there and knows it hinders change. If you consistently fix separate meals for your kids they will never learn to change their eating habits. They won’t learn to like new foods because you aren’t giving them the opportunity. For example, if you make tacos and one kid likes rice with theirs and another likes beans. Or one likes cheese and one likes guacamole. Those modifications are okay in my opinion as you are still making one meal, just small preference differences. But if you make a roast, potatoes and carrots, then fix your child a hotdog and mac-n-cheese, well that’s a different story. If that is your scenario, my suggestion would be to give your child roast and carrots, tell them they need to eat several bites, then they can have their mac-n-cheese. This will get your child trying new food while still enjoying their staple. You can slowly make changes like this until they realize that the roast isn’t so bad after all and you have worked your menu down to one meal for the family.
- Limit sugar. This seems like a no brainer, but truly it’s not. You will never realize how much sugar you eat, even natural sugar from fruit, until you try to reduce it. If you keep the sugar intake to natural sugars like fruit, honey and maple syrup, I can promise your child’s palate will really change. It will change so much that fruit will seem like a dessert for them. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for treats. I’m not referring to that here, I’m referring to the everyday life what you choose to serve outside of a special treat.
- Use an incentive to get your child to try new foods. Now this one will probably be controversial as there are many differing opinions on using incentives or bribes to get a child to eat. But I think on the contrary. We are motivated my incentives in so many areas as adults, so why wouldn’t we think that could work on a child. As long as you don’t let the incentives get out of hand, I see nothing wrong with using a small reward for their cooperation in trying something new. That reward could be something like additional screen time or a small toy. Or you could use a piece of fruit, gummies, or popsicle as an incentive after eating. I have listed a natural gummy and popsicle recipe at the bottom of this article.
- Let your child help cook. Children are almost always eager to help in the kitchen. If you are like me, type A, OCD tendencies, then letting little hands help can be a challenge. But if you can spare the time and throw out the need for perfection, then it’s a great way to bond as well as teach your child about food. A lot of times kids take ownership of the meal prepared and therefore are more inclined to eat it. Another idea is to plant a garden. If you don’t have room for a garden then little pots of herbs will work as well. Learning the process of how food grows is so fascinating to little minds. The innocence and excitement of seeing vegetables grow is really so cute. Plus, again they are more inclined to try it if they’ve had a vested interest in making it grow.
- Keep it simple but be prepared. You don’t have to make gourmet meals to make them appealing. Keeping meals simple when you don’t have extra time will be one key to consistency. And honestly, kids really don’t need variety. We think they do because it’s something that you might prefer, but generally speaking kids don’t care. One of the biggest challenges in creating change beside the obvious battle, is making time to cook. Keep things simple during the week, then do more labor intensive meals over the weekend. Next, when you have more time to cook do prep work. Prep veggies and fruits to make them easy to grab on the go. Make a double batch of your meal to stick one in the freezer. We also make double batches of muffins and pancakes to stick some in the freezer. Then I just pull out throughout the week to stick in lunch boxes. The more prepared you are the easier it is to stay consistent with healthy eating habits. When we are tired, over extended, double booked or beat down from the demands of life, it’s easy to hit the first drive thru in town. And sometimes that might be needed or the best option at the time, but most of the time you will need to be firm in your decision to eat healthy at home. So if you have that meal already prepped or that meal in the freezer, then it will be much easier to drive past the drive thru! However, I understand there are times when you need staple and easy go to items you can grab out of your pantry to fix quickly while still trying to stay consistent with healthy eating habits. So the best thing to do when buying packaged food is to READ LABELS. You want to be able to recognize each ingredient listed as well as the list should be short. If the package list a lot if ingredients then I would steer clear. And just because it says organic doesn’t make it better! Switching from a Kellogg’s pop-tart to an organic pop-tart from Whole Foods doesn’t make it any healthier for your child. Sure it may be better ingredients, but it’s still not adding any nutritional value. So don’t fool yourself on those, but clearly eat discerningly. Some of the top things to watch out for besides a long unpronounceable list are high fructose corn syrup, food dyes, BHT and modified anything (meaning genetically modified).
- Replace processed packaged “comfort food” with homemade “comfort food”. So your kid loves Kraft Mac-n-Cheese? Instead of buying the box that is full of 500 unpronounceable ingredients and fake cheese, try making mac-n-cheese from scratch to clean it up. You would be surprised how easy it is to make most store bought packaged foods. There are tons of recipes you can look up on Pinterest :). This is a great way to work towards changing to healthy eating habits as your child will crave more foods made from REAL food (not packaged).
At the end of the day, we all just want what’s best for our kids. No one expects or no child needs a perfect parent. It’s my personal opinion that caring enough to make changes and being intentional about making better choices is a great place to start. Take baby steps, one change a at time. And don’t expect to do it perfectly or get it right all the time. There’s a learning curve for both parents and children. And we are always learning! We don’t just get to a place of perfect health and then stop. We are constantly working to be the best version of ourselves and working towards our own optimal health, so the same applies to kids. You want your child to have a healthy relationship with food and be able to have age appropriate discussions about what it means to be healthy (like exercise helps us be strong, veggies will make you grow big and too much sugar can hurt your tummy). But projecting too much of that information on a small child whose not able to understand such complexities can be detrimental in the long run. You have to find that balance within your family to keep from damaging the delicate line that has to be walked. I do not want my kids to have a fear of food, but yet we deal with food allergies so it’s a little more complicated for us. However, in general, as the parents our children look to us for protection, guidance and nourishment. We don’t have to explain all of our decisions, we just need to decide what should happen and implement. So read this correctly when I say life is about balance which for me means there is a time and place for ice-cream, pizza and junk food galore. But this concept will look different for each family. So do what feels best for your family to find that balance between healthy eating habits and treats.
3/4 cup lemon juice
1 cup frozen berries
3 tbs honey
1/4 cup gelatin
1. Place the lemon juice and berries in a blender. Blend on high until completely mixed. Pour in a saucepan.
2. Add honey and gelatin, whisking together. It may become thick.
3. Turn heat to low and continue to whisk mixture for 5-10 minutes until it is well mixed and thin in consistency.
4. Pour mixture into an 8×8 glass pan.
5. Refrigerate for an hour until firm.
6. Cut in small squares and pop out of glass dish using a flat spatula.
Chocolate Banana Popsicles:
1 (13.5 oz) canned coconut milk – full fat
1 extra ripe banana
1 tbs peanut butter
2 tbs cacao powder (or cocoa powder)
1/2 avocado (optional for extra creaminess and healthy fat)
1 cup fresh baby spinach (optional for extra nutrition)
1. Blend all ingredients in a blender. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze.
2. If you don’t care for the banana flavor then you can sub with dates or honey.