Until my older son, Jules, neared his second birthday, I believed that striving and conniving ways to trick kids into eating vegetables and other healthy foods was something only other moms had to do. My little boy loved all things from the garden, prepared any way. He scarfed down purees of beets and parsnips as a wee babe, then graduated to downing adult-size servings of cooked spinach and stealing tomatoes from our garden. (Seriously. With the dog.)
Then, he stopped eating the spinach. He quit swiping the tomatoes. And for a while, the only vegetables that seemed to go down were ones pureed and hidden in quesadillas. As a nutrition expert, I know that research suggests that it takes 10 to 15 tries before a kid will actually eat—and like—a new food. And from my experience as a mom, I’ve learned that a lost affinity for veggies often returns. Now, at 3, he eats most veggies—usually preferring them raw—though he still doesn’t like tomatoes. My point: when it comes to helping your child to love new foods, you need to be persistent but not pushy. Here are some of my best personal tricks.
Plenty of research shows that kids tend to model the eating habits of their parents. If you’re reaching for lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low-fat dairy, your kids will likely take them too. Luckily, my husband and I both have a love for healthy foods. If that’s not true for you, not to worry: as an adult, you absolutely can retrain your taste buds, as dietitian and journalist Cynthia Sass reported in EatingWell.
Most nutrition experts say absolutely no food bribing, as it can lead to negative associations with food. I get it: When you tell your kid he can’t leave the table to play with a (fun) puzzle until he eats his peas, he’s not going to think fondly of peas. But at my house, negotiating has worked wonders. When I tell Jules that he cannot have any more dried apricots until he’s had four bites of his chicken or even that he cannot have a mini popsicle—which I emphasize is a treat—until he eats his pasta, he tends to eat more of the “good” stuff. He even seems to enjoy it. (Yes, I know not everyone agrees with me on this point.) If you need recipe ideas, check out these 30 kid-friendly dinners they’ll be begging you to make.
Kids like to feel they’re in control, so put out lots of healthy options and let them pick what they like best. We do this with healthy pizza toppings, tacos and “rice bowls” (brown rice with all sorts of healthy things as toppers—olives, tofu, avocado, shredded carrots, etc.).
For example, if your child refuses vegetables, you can still sneak in the veggies. If he’s not into milk and you’re worried about his calcium intake, you might blend it—or yogurt—into a smoothie. (Try these kid-friendly smoothies ready in 5 minutes or less!) Of course, you don’t want to serve healthful ingredients only in hidden form. I used to serve (hidden) veggie quesadillas with steamed broccoli on the side. Jules would eat the quesadilla and leave the broccoli. Now he eats both.
Picking out fruits and vegetables at the farmers's market and helping with CSA (community-supported agriculture) pick-ups seemed to help pique Julian’s interest in fresh, whole foods. And he started eating green beans this summer when we made it his job every night to pick the “ready” ones out of the garden. Other good kitchen chores for little hands: washing and breaking up greens, grating cheese, stirring up things that aren’t hot, pressing the “go” button on the food processor, cutting soft foods—like mushrooms—with a butter knife (supervised, of course).