If you're the parent of a picky eater (like me), meal times are likely the most stressful time of the day for you...and your kids. As a health coach, I put extra pressure on myself to make sure my kids are eating well. One, because I know how critical it is to their development and long term health - not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Would you be surprised to learn that my 15 year old is less emotional in his puberty transition when he's eating clean? It's true. But second, because I know people are looking to us as an example and I want to set a good one.
Here are some things I've learned over the last 15 years of trying to raise healthy eaters. Every family and every child is unique. Some kids have texture issues. Some kids have undiagnosed food sensitivities. Some kids have vitamin deficiencies that make foods that we think they should love taste off or gross to them. And some kids are just plain stubborn :)
But there are several basic tips that can help move any kid in the right direction. As parents, we need to let go of the big picture of what their "ideal" diet should look like or what other kids are eating and simply focus on making their meals as healthy as we can for them, while continuing to introduce nutrient dense new options. It's our own expectations that create frustration.
Try these tips to take some of the fight out of food:
Involve them in the process from start to finish. Let them be invested and feel like they have a say. Choose one day a week to write out a general meal plan together. Pick 1-2 foods that they are willing to try and then include some of their staples that they already love.
As stressful as it can be to bring kids to the grocery store - do it anyway!!! Talk about the foods you see. Choose some together that your kids are willing to try. Read labels and educate them on the choices you are making and why. Do they love granola bars? Read labels, choose 3 brands and do a blind taste test at home for fun to find the healthiest brand that they love and make the switch. (This is something we stopped during quarantine and we could definitely tell a difference. We finally brought it back this week and the meal time arguments have already decreased.)
Take them to a farmers market. There's something about the farmer's market experience that seems to open kids up to trying new things. It's so different from choosing a vegetable or any food from the fridge or the grocery store. It's a new environment and not one where they're used to putting their feet down and refusing foods. Plus, there's always an energy and enthusiasm around food at the farmer's market that's just contagious. And sampling organic, fresh grown foods straight from the farm means they're getting things at their peak flavor. My kids often discover that foods they thought they didn't like taste better at the farmer's market.
Get them in the kitchen cooking with you! We watch cooking shows like Master Chef Jr, which never fails to inspire my kids to want to cook. We've also done cooking box subscriptions like Raddish Kids, which my boys loved! Getting them in the kitchen and involving them in the cooking process makes them so much more likely to try the things you've created together. Give them a job at dinner time that's age appropriate from washing veggies, to chopping them or put them in charge of the dinner salad every night. After awhile, this not only pays off in encouraging picky eaters, but also in saving time. I have two little cooks at home who can prepare their own breakfast, lunch or dinner when our schedule is tight and I need help. My youngest has been making waffles from scratch and using a waffle iron since he was 7.
Be an example. We can't expect our kids to eat things we aren't willing to eat. Let them see you being adventurous in the kitchen and trying new things. Put variety into your own diet and it will set an example for them. You'll be surprised at how, over time, they will want to try what they see you eating.
Bonus tip: Don't call your kids picky eaters. It just gives them an excuse to use when they don't want to try something. I'm 100% guilty of using that phrase with my son, but I try not to. Talk about them learning to love new foods. Help them understand that they're developing their palate and that happens differently for everyone. I talk to my oldest son about training his taste buds now so that he'll love foods that will keep him healthy and strong as an adult. I let him know that he might not love something the first time he tries it, but if he stays open to trying it again and again, eventually he'll discover that he's developed a taste for that food. Just like trying anything new...baseball, dance, art, piano...the more you do it the better it gets.
Struggling with ideas for what to cook with the kids, check out Superfoods From A-Z, a fun, easy to use cookbook for kids and their parents. It provides 26+ (one for each letter of the alphabet) plant-based recipes that are kid friendly along with basic nutrition lessons that read like a children's book instead of a science book. You can download the PDF directly from our website or purchase it through Amazon to have it delivered directly to your Kindle or other eBook reader.