At the rates kids grow, what we feed them matters greatly to their physical, mental, and emotional health. (Not mention their behavior.)
What to feed children is a somewhat controversial topic and a point of frustration for a lot of parents. This is one of the areas I used to get the most questions when I did nutritional consulting, and a hotly debated issue among moms.
Over the years my husband and I have developed our own food guidelines that we follow at our house, and it’s definitely helped. I’ll share what’s worked (and what hasn’t) in hopes it helps with any picky eaters at your house!
My feelings run high on this topic, so grab a cup of (organic, herbal) tea, this is going to be a long one …
Junk Food, Junk Food Everywhere …
It’s quite obvious, with a quick stroll down the perilous middle aisles of any grocery store, that a lot of food marketing targets children. (After all, silly rabbit, “Trix are for kids!”)
Not so subtle TV commercials and even blatant bribe marketing (Happy Meal toys) seek to educate our kids about nutrition. Call me old fashioned, but I’m not content to let a clown with big red shoes teach my kids what good food looks like. (And I don’t care if it does come with milk and apple slices, Ronald!)
It is also no secret that obesity and Type 2 diabetes rates are skyrocketing in kids and appearing at younger and younger ages… Could there be a connection? (hint: yes!)
While most parents (I hope) agree that basic foods like healthy proteins and green veggies are important staples for the little ones, the issue of child nutrition is hardly a clear cut one anymore. With soccer games to play, choir practices to attend, and a social schedule that would have made me dizzy at their ages, most kids these days (and moms!) just aren’t home at meal times much. This rapidly paced lifestyle makes it easier to justify quick food, even if it is devoid of nutrients.
Convenient portable options like squeeze baby food pouches (yes, there are actually real-food baby food brands that make these now, hallelujah!) can help, but what about older kids? How can we guide their food choices even when they’re older?
I have some ideas…
Don’t Offer Food as a Reward
Another factor that I have noticed with many children is the connection to food as a type of reward. From a young age we reward birthdays with sweets, school achievements with meals out, good deeds with ice cream, and even healthy eating with dessert (if you eat all 3 of your peas, you can have a piece of cake…)
Couple the above factors with the fact that most kids, once they escape the nutrient-devoid school lunches and finally get home at night, are too tired to get the benefits of going outside and play or chase a ball around for fun, and instead curl up in front of the TV or video games with a snack.
With the world against her, what is a health-conscious mom to do? This is a question I struggled with myself for a long time before finally reaching family peace! Before I get to the “how,” let’s talk about the “what” to eat!
Teach Them to Recognize Real Food
With the hubbub of daily life, it is easy to forget just how important our kids’ nutrition is. Like I said, while most parents agree on the benefits of veggies and healthy proteins, it is all the other things that seem to cause the debate. Is dairy ok? Should they drink fruit juice? If so, how much? Is sugar OK in moderation?
While there is certainly plenty of room for parental choice in a child’s diet, there are a few core food groups to build around (I’ll give you a hint … it doesn’t look like the regular food pyramid!).
The good news is, the basic rule of what to feed kids is simple:
The most basic way to test if a child should be eating a given substance is to determine if it is actually a food or not.
Any “food” that can sit on a shelf and not decompose for a year is likely not fit for consumption. (Try that with a salad and see what happens!) This “non-food” list would also include anything containing hydrogenated oils (peanut, soy, cottonseed, vegetable, canola, etc), anything containing MSG, anything containing high fructose corn syrup, anything containing artificial sweeteners, and anything containing processed grains.
This basically knocks out all the fast food, microwaveable food, “food” bars, and most drinks besides water.
So, what’s left? Plenty!
Show Them a Different Food Pyramid
If your head is swimming with the idea of all the things you shouldn’t feed your kids… don’t worry, the list of great foods is a tasty one!
The following foods are excellent, necessary sources of nutrition that every child should consume on a regular basis. If yours aren’t chomping down the Brussels sprouts just yet, stay with me… I’ve learned a few things (with lots of mistakes and experiments) raising six kids, and I’ll share what worked for their six (very different!) personalities.
1. Good Sources of Protein
Proteins (amino acids) are used in every function in the body and are absolutely vital for all of us, especially kids as they are still forming bones and muscles.
Healthy meats, especially, offer complete proteins that children desperately need for proper growth (the tofu just won’t cut it here). I’ve heard all too many parents state that their kids “don’t like red meat” and then have their kids test positive for a B-12 deficiency. So what are healthy meats?
Kids need real, untreated, chemical-free sources of protein, and chicken nuggets just won’t do! Regular, daily consumption of pure, organic beef, chicken, turkey, and eggs will ensure that kids’ protein needs are being met. Most kids will eat healthy meats willingly once they have tried well-prepared sources. (Check out some recipes here).
Proteins to Try
- grass-fed beef
- free-range chicken and other poultry
- organic organ meats
- free range eggs
- wild caught fish
- wild game
- some luncheon meats and bacon are ok if you can find the nitrate/nitrite-free varieties
Proteins to Avoid
- processed meats
- chicken nuggets
- deli meats (with nitrates)
- meats that are served with processed foods (hamburgers, pizza, etc.)
- any non-meats like soy nuggets
- commercially raised beef, poultry, or fish
2. Veggies and Fruits
Maybe you noticed I said those in a reverse order than that which you are used to (“eat fruits and veggies!”). This was intentional.
Studies show that Americans eat much more fruit than veggies, a trend we could stand to reverse. While fruits are wonderful and have their place, veggies are equally (or more) important, and have much less sugar.
Even though fruits contain natural sugar, fructose in large amounts (even from fruit) can be damaging. Besides this, kids will usually choose fruit over veggies if given the choice, and many parents are happy to make this concession as long as the kids are “eating fruits and veggies.”
The top-consumed veggies among Americans are potatoes and tomatoes (french fries and ketchup, anyone?). In addition, many of the “vegetables” on kids’ plates are not really vegetables at all: corn (a grain), potatoes (a tuber, high in carbs and low in nutrition compared to other veggies), and peas (a legume).
Most kids receive a majority of their “vegetable” intake from tomato-based products like ketchup or pasta sauce. Despite the widely acknowledged fact that veggies and fruits reduce risk of almost every disease, we still aren’t eating them! The good news? As parents, we have much more influence than we think in our kids’ diets (more on that in a minute)!
Veggies and Fruits to Eat (Tons Of!):
- organic leafy greens (spinach, lettuce, mixed greens, kale, chard, turnip, mustard, etc.)
- colorful fruits and veggies (peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, squashes, carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, cucumbers, avocado, berries, bananas, grapes, etc.)
- unusual fruits and veggies (leeks, fennel, okra, olives, artichokes, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, sea veggies, beets, parsnips, radishes, asparagus, kohlrabi, etc.)
Veggies and Fruits for Treats
Call me crazy (and people have) but most fruits, for my kids, are natural treats. While berries are in season, they feast with reckless abandon, but during most of the year, veggies come first and fruits are the “dessert.” After some adjustment, kids really do learn to love the natural sweetness in fruit, even over processed sugar.
The higher sugar content fruits to eat in moderation are: apples, oranges/other citrus, melons, mango, papaya (organic, or its GMO), pears, pomegranates, peaches and the like. Dried fruits (prunes, raisins, dates, dried cranberries, etc) are also higher in sugar and are usually given as treats in the form of natural energy bars.
Veggies and Fruits to Avoid
Fried ones like french fries, potato chips, onion rings, and other non-foods, “veggie” chips, “fruit” roll-ups and “fruit” snacks, fruit juices (even the no-sugar-added types as they all act as pure sugar in the body and don’t compare to the nutrients in real fruit), any “fruit” or “vegetable” product that has ingredients besides fruit on the label.
3. Healthy Fats
Sadly, the low-fat trend in America is being passed on to kids also. We tend to surf the extremes, letting them eat fast food or junk food but giving them “healthy” low-fat alternatives at other times.
While some parents, with the best of intentions, restrict fat in their kid’s diets to prevent weight gain, a restricted fat diet in kids can lead to health problems, vitamin deficiency, and ADHD. Dietary fats carry the necessary vitamins A,D,E and K into tissue and allow for uptake. Breast milk, considered the most complete food for babies and toddlers is over 50% total fat and 40-50% saturated fat. It seems odd to me that children would suddenly go from a dietary need for this much fat to a much smaller need for dietary fat.
A lack of necessary dietary fats, especially saturated fats, can cause reduction in the myelin sheath that coat kids’ brain cells, causing uncontrolled or rapid fire impulses in the brain, which presents as ADD or ADHD. It will be a paradigm shift for many of our generation to stop demonizing fats, but for our kids’ sakes, we need to make this jump.
Kids under 14 especially need adequate amounts of fat (including saturated fat) and this intake should comprise 30% of their total diet. Be careful, of course, in choosing healthy fats: avoid trans fats and engineered fats like vegetable oils, hydrogenated oils, and shortening.
Great Sources of Dietary Fat:
- coconut (raw, or as oil, shredded, flour, milk, butter … all coconut is great)
- avocados, olives/olive oil
- butter/ghee (as long as organic/grass-fed)
- organ meat
- wild game
- nuts and seeds
I also recommend supplementing omega-3s and vitamin D.
Sources of Dietary Fat to Avoid
- polyunsaturated oils (liquid at room temp like peanut, soy, canola, vegetable, etc.)
- hydrogenated oils
- shortening, trans fats, and any other engineered forms of oil or fat (p.s. These are the oils and fats used at restaurants and in most processed foods.)
Teach Them What They Don’t Need
Particularly in processed or pasteurized forms, these two “food” groups are responsible for a lot of childhood allergies and are just not the superior nutrition sources that they are made out to be. Studies (and personal experience) prove that kids who can’t eat either of these sources due to allergies receive just as much (or more) nutrients as those who eat these regularly.
Why Grains Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be
The water-soluble proteins like gluten and lectin present in processed grains can do damage to the digestive system over time, and these particles can then pass through the small intestine and move into the blood stream where they are seen as a pathogen. The body creates an immune response and an allergy is born. (Not to mention you would basically have feces floating in your bloodstream!)
The good news here is that in many cases, and especially in children, the body is very capable of healing itself if given real food!
Even those who recommend intake of “healthy whole grains” for “fiber and nutrients” will acknowledge that meats, veggies, fruits and healthy fats have a much higher nutrient profile. Grains should be a small part of a child’s diet. And if you do eat grains, stick to actual whole grains (rice, oats, etc) or other starches like quinoa (technically a seed).
Dare You Dairy?
The issue of dairy in the diet can be an even more controversial one! While we don’t do much dairy, and only in raw, unpasteurized form from an organic farmer, dairy is a staple in many children’s diets at the recommendation of their doctors.
Statistically, kids who go without the dairy by choice or by allergy still receive adequate calcium and other nutrients. However, dairy is the main source of dietary fat for many children. In some cases, even though dairy isn’t necessary, until this fat is replaced with more healthy sources (see above), removing all dairy can do more harm than good.
How to Get a Picky Child to Eat Real Food
Kicking old food habits is hard for adults, let alone a picky toddler. So even with all this information on what to feed your kids, the question becomes: how the heck do you actually get them to eat this stuff?
Some practical suggestions for the switch:
1. Make Up Your Mind First!
When it comes to dietary shifts, you must present a confident front, and believe the information you are telling your kids! Research, meal plan, and commit to making this positive change for your family.
2. Be Gradual But Firm
While your kids won’t make the jump from happy meals to veggie smoothies in a day, they will adapt faster than you expect, and they will learn to love healthy foods. To start, put one small bite of each food you cooked on each child’s plate. (One small piece of chicken, one leaf of spinach, one piece of squash)
Tell the child that he/she may have more of any of the foods you have cooked once he or she eats just the small amount of each. This way, the child is motivated to try new foods, but the amount is not so daunting that he or she refuses it altogether. Even the pickiest of eaters will eventually be willing to take one bite of a hated food to get to one he or she likes.
After introducing foods like this for a while, slowly add more of each at meals so that after a few months, your kids are eating full portions of all the healthy foods.
WARNING: Your kids will test you on this for the first few days! They might even go without eating for a meal or two. Don’t be alarmed. Stay calm, don’t push them, and just calmly explain that they don’t have to eat, but that the food they were given is what is being served and that is all they will get. This is the toughest 3 days!
3. Let Kids Decide If/When They Are Hungry
This is not to say, of course, that you shouldn’t set limits or that you should allow access to foods 24/7, but if a child is truly not hungry (or using this as an excuse to not eat healthy foods), don’t force the issue or resort to junk food just to get them to eat something. Kids are born with an amazing ability to know when they are hungry and when to stop eating when they aren’t hungry anymore. This ability gets skewed by the chemicals in the food system, but it comes back quickly to kids.
Realize too that kids don’t always get hungry at meal times, and that skipping a meal, occasionally, is not going to harm them, especially during this adjustment. This is another reason for serving small portions of each type of food. The child will become more in touch with when he or she is hungry and how much food he or she needs if only given a small amount of each (he or she can always ask for more!).
Alternately, if kids get hungry between meals, provided they have eaten healthy foods at those meals, let them have healthy snacks like nuts, veggies, fruits or chopped meats.
4. Give Rewards Besides Food
This is an important step to take with kids. We reward everything from good grades to good behavior to birthdays with food of some kind, creating a feeling that eating certain foods is associated with being special or doing well. While eating is certainly a social and family activity and many important events involve food, it is important to break the association with food and a feeling of achievement or happiness.
Let family dinner time be the time of bonding over food shared, and let other things replace foods as rewards. Rewards can be a family outing, a bike ride in the park, a new book, the chance to have a friend over, etc. Breaking the cycle of associating food with fun and achievement will help ensure the child does not ever become an emotional eater and give the child a strong, rational, foundation to base dietary choices on.
5. Explain It To Them & Get Them Involved
Kids are brilliant little creatures with a God-given ability to learn much faster than we can. Too often we dumb down explanations of why they must do things or exaggerate them. (Come on, honey, just eat one bite of this yummy, yummy broccoli that tastes so wonderful and will make you super strong!)
Most kids respond extremely well to a logical and calm introduction to new (or disliked) foods. When we make a big deal out of getting them to try something, they learn that (a) dragging on the ordeal will result in more attention and (b) it must not actually be that good, or we wouldn’t be making such an ordeal about it in the first place.
Put the food on their plates, tell them what it is, and answer any questions. Don’t bribe, cajole or beg. It is healthy food, it is good for them, and it tastes good too. They are expected to eat it, period. If they ask, explain why the food is healthy and that making good eating choices is important for a healthy body. If they balk, stay calm! They will likely find that they actually do like many of the foods they previously shunned for their pasta or PB&J.
Also, use this as a chance to get them involved in the kitchen. In my experience, children are much more likely to eat foods that they helped prepare. We love the Kids Cook Real Food Course, which has helped all of our kids (even the littles) be able to prepare different types of foods.
6. Let Them Make Choices, But Healthy Ones
While the adjustment to healthy eating can be tough, I’m not advocating becoming a food fanatic. Whenever possible, let the kids make their own choices on healthy options for food. Not only will they feel better about trying a food they chose, but it will help break down their perception that you have hijacked their ability to eat what they want.
Learning to eat healthy is more about empowering them to understand and choose healthy options, and this won’t happen if you never let them make choices. After about 3-4 weeks of good eating, you can even let them choose unhealthy options at a party or someone’s house. Likely, they will notice that they no longer feel good from eating the junk, and this will help them learn to make good choices also.
7. Model It Yourself
This might be the hardest part of getting your kids to eat healthy. Many of us carry perceptions of certain foods from childhood and don’t like to eat many veggies ourselves. Besides the fact that eating healthy is proven to reduce the risk of practically every disease and condition imaginable, we now have the added incentive of doing it for our kids’ sake.
Parenting experts agree that children pick up behavior based much less on what they are told and much more on what they observe. If they see you routinely eating veggies and enjoying them, they will start to choose it themselves!
If it helps, try lots of new veggies and find ways to involve lots of variety and color. The more visually appealing foods are the more likely they (and you) are to enjoy them. As a last resort, just remember that you can make yourself like any food if you eat it long enough.
8. Make Home Cooking a Priority
This can be very difficult with all the commitments and activities we all have, but this will be one of the most rewarding things you can do for your family. Not only will you get to spend quality time together, but your chances of eating healthfully drastically increase when you cook at home. You have the option of using more natural ingredients and more variety. Unhealthy options are not on the menu, tempting you to choose them, and the kids will get to see how foods are prepared.
Make up your mind to do this and stick with it. My secret: Real Plans, an amazing app will all real food recipes (including all of mine) and will create a meal plan and shopping lists in seconds. This has been a real lifechanger and saved me a ton of time.
Years later, I look back on this decision and know we did the right thing for our family. The kids eat up not only the food but the quality time together, which will benefit them in the long run much more than the extra extracurriculars we often feel obligated to let (or push) them into.
9. Let Them See Where Food Comes From
Many kids today actually think that food comes from grocery stores. (That was a wake up call to me when mine asked long ago how the grocery store makes chicken!)
Many kids grow up with no knowledge or appreciation of how food is grown or raised and how it gets to them. If possible, take your kids to a farm or farmers’ market to expose them to a new way of viewing their food. Even better, grow a garden and let them help. They are much more likely to eat what they have grown themselves.
Just don’t visit a conventional beef or chicken facility … that is not the kind of connection you want with your food!
10. You (the Parent) Are Responsible for the Food in Your House
This was a major stumbling block for me. As a new mom, I used to feel guilty for making my son eat things he didn’t like. I shuddered at the thought of him going hungry, if only for one meal! It wasn’t until I started to realize how much he liked/wanted the unhealthy foods and how he was becoming increasingly resistant to healthy foods that I knew something had to change … and change it did!
I realized that we, as parents, exercise authority in many other aspects of our kids lives, but turn into a short order cook at dinner time to please everyone in the family.
We wouldn’t dream of letting them stay up three hours past bedtime, go without washing their hands or their clothes regularly, or throw down a few beers after school, but we routinely concede on healthy eating, even though it has a more detrimental effect than dirty clothes or staying up late!
“I’m the mom,” I realized, and darn it, my kids will eat healthy, and I will figure out a way for them to love it! Much to my relief and surprise, the transition was much easier than I expected.
While kids can be picky, they are also extremely adaptable and resilient. They also see the effects of dietary improvement faster than we do. Also, as kids eat 3 to 4 times the amount of food per pound of weight as adults, the choices they (and I) make now, can and will affect them for the rest of their lives!
Bonus Tips for Healthy Eating
Here are a few suggestions that have worked with my kids and friend’s kids:
- Start viewing food for nutrition first and enjoyment second. Make sure the majority of your diet is actually nourishing (healthy meats, vegetables, fruits, broths, good fats, etc.) and minimize the non-nourishing foods (crackers, cereal, sandwiches, etc.)
- Just start serving the healthy food. Only put a little on their plates but require them to eat it before they eat anything else. If they “aren’t hungry” or don’t want to eat it, don’t push it, but don’t give them other food. They won’t starve from missing one meal because they are being picky.
- If they ask, explain that you are coking healthier foods to help make their bodies strong and their brains smart. Tell them that they don’t have to eat anything if they truly aren’t hungry but they won’t get any special options and they are not allowed to complain (and enforce that!). At our house, complainers have to leave the table and their meal is finished.
- Let your kids help with food preparation so they feel involved and invested in making healthy choices. If you can, also let them go to the store and help pick out colorful and healthy fruits and veggies so they will be more likely to want to try them or garden if you can.
- Don’t underestimate them. Talk to your kids about why some foods are healthy and some aren’t and let them make their own healthy choices sometimes. When I started doing this with my five year old I was surprised to see him voluntarily refuse cake, chips, or ice cream at parties when they were offered to him, even without my help.
- Stop feeling like kids are entitled to treats and snacks as part of being a kid. For the most part, our kids are bombarded with sweets and unhealthy treats from a really young age. From birthday parties to school snack times to the endless kid friendly options. This is a huge disservice to them since this is such a critical time in lifelong health and we are encouraging forming bad habits with food.
- Read books like Paleo Pals or Eat Like a Dinosaur to help them understand and want to make healthy changes.
- This post has a list of healthy breakfast and lunch ideas
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you have tips on getting kids to eat healthy? Share below!!