How Do I Get My Child to Eat Healthier Foods?

A Guide for Parents of On-the-Go Kids and Picky Eaters

Between parents’ work schedules, after school activities, homework, and chores, you may find it impossible to make time for healthy meals that your kids actually want to eat.  The challenge is even greater when kids get hooked on the pizza, soda, and chips provided at friends’ houses, activities, and parties.  Even the most conscientious parent may find it hard to avoid the temptation of fast food and favorite snacks.  But there are solutions!

  • Have easy foods on hand for last minute meals.  Keep healthy food on hand for quick and easy meals-frozen food can be an easy and healthy choice, especially all-in-one bag frozen family meals that are low on calories and fat (check out the many combinations of grilled chicken, rice or pasta, and vegetables in one bag).  If those family meals aren’t quite large enough for your family, you can easily add more fresh or frozen peas, green beans, or corn to make it more filling.
  • Plan meals in advance.  This is hard for most families, but if you cook on the weekend you can freeze meals (or at least one major ingredient, such as cooked beans or rice) that you can use to make several meals during the week.  You can even look online for Once a Month Cooking (OAMC) plans that designate one day each month as “cooking day” and free up the rest of your time for other things.  Ask your kids to help you select and even help prepare the dishes-that way they are more likely to eat them when they are served.
  • Out of sight, out of mind.  Don’t keep cake, candy, cookies, or chips (the 4 Cs!) in the house.  If you want to splurge occasionally, buy a small bag or individual portion as a treat.  Keep healthy snacks where kids can reach them.  You can “disguise” healthy foods by combining them with favorites-for example, try apple slices with low-fat peanut butter, baby carrots with veggie dip, or make your own trail mix with a combination of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.
  • Shopping Tips.  When you buy groceries, try to buy “whole foods” instead of processed foods – for example, buy fish, chicken, turkey, whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, and fresh fruits and vegetables.  If fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive or inconvenient, look for frozen ones without sauces, salt, sugar, or additives.  Whole foods are preferable because they have all their nutrients and they don’t have added chemicals, sugars, salt, or fat.  Experts call these foods “nutrition dense” because you get more nutrients per calorie than you do with processed foods.  Try to pick foods that look good together because they have different colors and textures.  It sounds funny-like you’re trying to have a “fashion forward” plate-but this is a great way to maximize taste and nutrition!
  • Avoid misleading “health” claims.  Grilled chicken or fish are great choices, but fried chicken or fried fish are no healthier than hamburgers.  Remember that how food is prepared (fried, grilled, baked) is almost as important as what is in the food.  Most “juice drinks” have more sugar than the fruit they are made from, and contain little or no fiber, and many vegetable soups have more salt than vitamins.  If a salad has ham, eggs, cheese, and lots of salad dressing, it may be more fattening than a cheeseburger.  Remember that just because a label says “low calorie” or “sugar-free,” doesn’t mean the food or beverage is healthy.  Check food and beverage labels for nutrients like vitamins, protein, fiber, and minerals, not just for “bad” things like fat, calories, and salt.
  • Transition slowly.  If you and your family are used to eating a lot of fast food and prepared meals, your kids will need to slowly get used to other foods.  For example, try adding some extra fruits and vegetables to your usual meals, gradually decreasing the portion size of other items on the plate.  Start using whole grain bread, lean meat, low-fat cheese in a sandwich.  Try applesauce for dessert.  Our taste buds adjust over time, so cravings for very sweet or salty foods will decrease if you gradually take those foods out of your children’s diets.
  • Get young children involved in the kitchen.  The more kids are involved in making meals and snacks, the more they will enjoy eating healthy food.  Ask your kids to help you wash fruits and vegetables or do simple tasks like snapping the stems off of green beans, or making a salad.  Give children a few healthy choices for their sandwich or salad, so that they are involved and interested in eating healthy.  You can also teach kids where their food comes from by helping them start a small garden-even if all you have is a windowsill or fire escape.

References:

Diana Zuckerman & Brandel France de Bravo, The Survival Guide for Working Moms (and Other Stressed-Out Adults), 2009.

United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services, Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans 2010, available at: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/.