It’s Halloween season, which means those fun-sizes candy bars are stocked on store shelves, kids are getting special themed treats in their classrooms and the holiday season (with more goodies) lurks right around the corner. How are you going to get your children excited about healthy foods when all that’s sugar-coated and frosting-topped lies so close at hand?
For a few kid-friendly ideas, I enlisted experts to dish out their best tactics. Here’s how to get kids more excited for all that whole-food goodness:
Make grocery shopping a game. Let your kids loose around healthy foods. While you fill up your shopping cart with good-for-you items, have them choose one special thing themselves. “You can give them suggestions like picking out vegetable of a certain color, like orange for Halloween,” says Barbara Linhardt, MS, RD. “If they feel like they participated in picking it they might be more willing to try it and see if they like it.”
Find ways to make fruits and veggies fun. Speaking of veggies, sometimes taking them beyond the grocery store can help. Nneka Ricketts-Cameron, RD, LD/N and Tamara Sims-Dorway, RD, CSP, LD/N, both registered dietitians at the Arnold Palmer Hospital Center for Pediatric Digestive Health and Nutrition, suggest “starting a small garden growing seasonal foods, visiting a local farmer’s market to check out the freshest produce or visiting a You-pick farm.” If your kids can enjoy other healthy-food environments, eating what’s good for you feels special, and they’re enticed to try what they’ve discovered.
Get kids in on the cooking. Ricketts-Cameron and Sims-Dorway suggest setting kids loose on child-friendly websites like chopchopmag.com or choosemyplate.gov to find healthy-eating recipes they’d like to try, while Linhardt likes gold mines such as epicurious.com or foodnetwork.com for fun food fare. “At first, they may gravitate towards foods they are comfortable with, but the more often they participate in picking recipes, the more likely they will start to try new foods via those new recipes,” Linhardt says, adding that if they can help you execute the recipes, even better. “If they are old enough, teach them how to cut the vegetables up for dinner,” she says. “Or if they aren’t quite ready yet to use a knife, put out a few types of berries out and have your child mix them together to make a fruit salad for dessert.”
Transition into healthy territory slowly. Going from craving ice cream to asparagus probably won’t happen in one fell swoop. Trying to quit a bad habit cold turkey is not too easy,” says Linhardt. “It’s the same with your kids’ love of certain unhealthy foods.” For instance, if your child drinks sugary juice by the gallon and you can’t get them to stop, wean them off of the habit slowly. “Start by filling their cup with ¾ juice and ¼ water, then move to ½ cup juice and ½ cup water, then go to ¼ cup juice and ¾ cup water,” Linhardt says. “They may adjust and learn to like the taste of more diluted juice, and eventually might be OK with having just water.” It’s a process!
Try, try again. If they whine and cry when you give them a healthy veggie, don’t stop putting it on their plates when you make it. “Studies show that children may not accept foods until they have been offered them over 20 times,” says Linhardt. “So that means if your kid turns their nose up to Brussels sprouts, don’t give up, because they may eventually come around.” Think about what’s on your plate now that you wouldn’t have touched as a child. You have to develop your tastes and refine your palate. The sooner, the better!
That said, don’t force them too soon. “Start where your kids are comfortable,” says Linhardt. “I often have children and adults tell me they don’t like any vegetables, but, with a little prying, they will usually admit that they like some vegetables, or at least have a few vegetables they will tolerate.” So if your child is OK with simple lettuce, start by increasing their lettuce intake—add it to sandwiches, give them lettuce-only salads with a bit of dressing, or make them turkey and lettuce wraps. “Then you can try to up the game,” Linhardt says. “Like maybe they are used to iceberg lettuce, but won’t notice if you mix some romaine in there.” Slow, steady and innovative wins the race.
Partake in some taste tests. Just knowing they’re “supposed to” eat veggies, and watching you pile them onto their plates, might be a turn-off for many kids. Instead, disguise them with a mini food adventure. Ricketts-Cameron and Sims-Dorway suggest making dinnertime or snacktime a game of sorts with blindfolded taste tests. Don’t tell kids what they’re getting, but give them two or three veggies, fruits or other healthy foods to try (like roasted eggplant, cauliflower or zucchini) and ask which they prefer. Winner is their snack for the day.
Introduce one new facet of healthy eating per week. Exposing kids to as many varied and healthy behaviors as possible is the best way to get them excited about making that a lifestyle. Start by trying just one new food or cuisine each week that your family has never tried. “For example, if you’ve never cooked with jicama—now is the time to start,” says Linhardt. “Or if you usually go to the diner down the block, try the new Indian restaurant instead. You never know when your child might find something they’ll love.”
Model it. Kids want to be like mom and dad. So if you only do one thing to get your kids to move in the direction of healthy eating for life, model it yourself. “Don’t expect to your children to be perfect, healthy-eaters if you are not filling up your plate with vegetables, fruits, and whole grains too,” Linhardt says. “It is so important for children to see their parents choosing healthy foods and actually enjoying them.” If you’re not enjoying healthy foods, seek out new recipes and cuisines you will love, too. If not, your kids will associate healthy eating as dismal eating — and no one wants that.