Pictured Recipe: Kid-Friendly Salad
Anyone who's ever tried to feed a child (something other than cereal or ice cream) knows that they don't always eat what you want them to. It's stressful trying to figure out what to make to nourish their tiny bodies. Plus, just because it gets served doesn't mean your kids will eat it. But kids need nutritious food—healthy fats for their brains, calcium for their bones, and all the vitamins and minerals vegetables offer—and more. To take out some of the stress and make sure you're offering your child the healthiest foods, we compiled expert tips for mealtimes as well as a list of the top 10 healthy foods for kids.
These 10 foods are not only super-healthy for your kids (and for you!), but are also versatile and easy to prepare.
Pictured Recipe: "Pine-Apple" Fruit & Yogurt Cups
"Yogurt is a wonderful option for breakfast, a snack, or even a dessert but you have to watch the added sugar content," says Katie Andrews, M.S., R.D., a childhood nutrition coach and owner of Wellness by Katie. "It's a healthy, filling snack that checks the boxes on protein and vitamin D, a nutrient many kids lack in their diet." Yogurt also delivers probiotics, good bacteria that are important for maintaining a healthy gut. An easy way to pick out a healthy yogurt? Buy plain Greek yogurt, which has zero added sugars plus twice the protein of regular yogurt. Most yogurt that's flavored has added sugar; some new products are flavored with just fruit, but plain is always a safe bet. It's easy to add flavor yourself by adding berries and sprinkling a whole-grain cereal on top or creating a fun parfait with fruit. Dress up yogurt even more for kids by turning it into frozen yogurt pops or frozen yogurt bark.
Related: Healthy Recipe Ideas for Kids
Pictured Recipe: Toaster-Oven Tostadas
Beans are a humble superfood. They're loaded with protein and fiber, plus they're cheap and take little time to prepare. Buy low-sodium canned beans such as black beans, chickpeas or kidney beans. Simply open the can, rinse them to remove extra sodium and add to any dish. "Replacing ground beef with beans in a quesadilla or tossing beans with pasta helps maintain high-quality, lean protein while adding a key nutrient: fiber," says Andrews. There are pastas made from beans too, look for brands like Banza, Pow and Tolerant Foods. "Kids ages 4 to 8 need around 25 grams of fiber a day, and most products marketed directly to kids, like fruit snacks and cheese crackers, contain little if any. Fiber helps promote healthy digestion and helps your kids feel fuller, longer, so they aren't asking you for a snack 5 minutes after dinner ends," says Andrews.
Pictured Recipe: Avocado-Egg Toast
One large egg has 6 grams of protein and delivers vitamin D, vitamin B12 and iron. Some eggs are also fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, which aid in kids' brain development. Don't worry about the cholesterol—saturated and trans fats have a bigger impact on raising bad cholesterol than eggs. At breakfast, skip the pastries, fried foods and processed meats and scramble some eggs for your kids instead. If your kids aren't fans of scrambled, try different presentations like egg salad or egg casseroles.
Eggs also make a great starter food for babies. Doctors used to recommend not giving eggs until babies were 12 months old, but research now shows that introducing allergenic foods between 6 and 12 months might help prevent food allergies.
Pictured Recipe: Spinach-Avocado Smoothie
Avocados are an easy way to get healthy fats into your child's diet. They are high in monounsaturated fats, which decrease inflammation and keep cholesterol levels healthy. Fat moves through the digestive tract slowly, so it keeps kids full longer. But the best part of avocados? Their versatility. You can eat them with a spoon, mash on toast, throw into a smoothie, mix into chicken or tuna salad, or make a pasta sauce like avocado pesto. Avocados also make a great first food for babies.
Pictured Recipe: Oven Sweet Potato Fries
Short on time and need something nutritious? Wash a sweet potato, poke some holes in it and microwave it for 3-5 minutes (depending on its size). Slice it lengthwise, let it cool, then scoop onto your child's plate. Whether your kid is 6 months, 6 years old or 16 years old, sweet potatoes are appealing across the board (because they're sweet!). They're packed with vitamin A (over 300 percent daily value for an adult), fiber and potassium. Limiting salt and increasing potassium keeps blood pressure and hearts healthy.
Pictured Recipe: Pretzels with Dark Chocolate & Peanut Butter
Milk helps build strong bones because it's full of calcium and vitamin D. One 8-ounce glass is also high in phosphorus, vitamin B12 and potassium, and has 8 grams of protein. Babies shouldn't have cow's milk until age 1. Offer whole milk until age 2 but keep it under 32 ounces for the day or they might be too full to eat their food. After age 2, kids can drink low-fat milk with a goal of three servings of dairy per day—yogurt and cheese count too. If your kid doesn't like cow's milk, there are a variety of alternatives on shelves today. But check the nutrition labels and choose unsweetened or plain varieties for your kids. Plain may have some added sugar to match the sweetness of dairy milk, which may be more palatable to tiny taste buds. Every alternative milk has a slightly different nutrition profile; soymilk has the most protein. And you'll get the same calcium and vitamin D benefit as long as the milk is fortified.
Pictured Recipe: Peanut Butter Energy Bite "Ice Cream Cones"
Swap the low-fiber, crunchy kid snacks (you know the ones that are practically air) for nuts and seeds to deliver a healthful trio of fiber, protein and healthy fats. Mix it up by offering cashews, walnuts, almonds, pecans, sunflower seeds, chia seeds and more. If your child has a tree nut allergy, seeds may be a safe choice and a good way to get important nutrition. Nuts are high in magnesium, a mineral that's crucial in bone development and energy production. Walnuts, pecans, chia seeds and flaxseeds are high in alpha-linolenic (ALA) acid, a type of omega-3 fat that the body can't make (so you have to eat it). Offer nuts alone or with dried fruit, throw flaxseed into smoothies, sprinkle chia seeds on peanut butter toast, use sliced almonds to "bread" chicken instead of breadcrumbs, or make your own granola bars.
Pictured Recipe: One-Pot Greek Pasta
Whole grains deliver a nutrient seriously lacking in most kids' diets: fiber. Fiber keeps them full and regular. Kids need about 25 grams per day, but many snacks only contain 1-3 grams per serving. Look for 100-percent whole wheat or whole grain in the ingredients list (don't be fooled by front-of-pack marketing) and at least 3-5 grams of fiber per serving. Easy whole-grain foods for kids include oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta (try half whole-wheat, half white if they won't tolerate all whole-wheat), brown rice, and whole-wheat tortillas and bread. You can also use whole-wheat flour or white whole-wheat flour when making pancakes, cookies or pizza dough.
Related: Super-Tasty Quinoa Recipes for Kids
Pictured Recipe: Egg & Waffle Bento Box
One cup of berries has 4 grams of fiber and is high in vitamin C and other antioxidants like anthocyanins. Blueberries, blackberries and strawberries are also lower in sugar than many fruits. Fresh berries make an excellent snack for kids or a great topping for yogurt. If berries aren't in season, buy unsweetened frozen berries and mix them into a jar of overnight oats or a smoothie.
Pictured Recipe: Hasselback Zucchini "Pizzas"
Kids and adults alike don't eat enough veggies. If you can get your kid to eat any vegetable—kudos! However, the more color and the greater the variety of vegetables, the better. Each color delivers different nutrients: leafy greens like spinach and kale are high in vitamin K, orange and red vegetables have vitamin A, peppers are packed with vitamin C, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower contain cancer-fighting compounds and feed good gut bacteria.
"Really it is about taking the 'fear' away from veggies—while a slice of pizza is very approachable, a stalk of broccoli can seem intimidating," says Andrews. "So make veggies easy and accessible. Wash and cut celery, carrot and cucumber sticks and keep them in the fridge for snacking. If you have some green space available, plant a small garden with cherry tomatoes and sweet baby peppers; when kids grow their own food they are proud of the results, and therefore more willing to indulge in the bounty." Andrews also recommends introducing new vegetables along with ones that your kid is already familiar with: "Make-your-own taco bars or pizza night at home is a great way to encourage young chefs!"
Don't give up after offering a vegetable a few times. It takes repeated exposure. Switching up how you serve the vegetables can help too. Some kids won't eat raw tomatoes but will eat cooked diced tomatoes in a pasta sauce.
How can you actually get your kids to eat more of these super-healthy foods? Try these ideas.
Use MyPlate as a guide. Aim to make half of their plate fruits and vegetables, one-quarter whole grains like bread or whole-wheat pasta, and one-quarter protein like eggs, meat, cheese, beans or nuts.
Remember that your job as the parent is to offer a variety of food, it's your child's job to eat it.
Get your children involved in the cooking and they'll be more likely to try the food. Try these 10 easy dinners that kids can help cook.
Serve food family-style so that kids can choose what and how much they would like to eat from the food on the table, recommends Emma Fogt, M.B.A., M.S., R.D.N. "Always have one food on the table that the limited-eater child likes," she says. "The child may eat a lot of bread, but you will also have your other foods on the table for them to try."
"Be a healthy-eating role model," Fogt also recommends. "Kids are watching your every move! For example: Sit down with your kids, eat every 3-4 hours yourself, enjoy healthy snacks and meals, make mealtimes fun and relaxing, play games at mealtime, get chatting, get rid of phones at mealtimes, take the pressure off the food and make it a time to connect. Because in our busy lives this downtime is sacred and it's not about the food."
Take off the pressure. Research shows that kids who were forced to eat certain foods as kids often grow up to dislike or avoid those foods as adults. Coercing kids to eat foods makes mealtime stressful for them and you. "Keep calm and carry on," says Fogt. "It's a long process—I hate to say it, but often can be years—as parents. You have to be so 'chill.' No pressure on the child to eat and no pressure on you to force-feed."
Remove negative language from the dinner table, says Andrews. "Saying 'you're probably not going to like it but give it a try' tells a child that the food isn't worth trying!" she says. Introduce new foods along with those with which they are familiar.
Remember you're not alone. Seek help if needed! Registered dietitians, pediatric psychologists, pediatricians and feeding specialists can help.