Mealtime can be complicated when you’re feeding little ones, especially if you’re trying to build a farm-fresh, healthy diet.
Some kids eat anything. They’ll happily sink their teeth into a whole-grain wrap loaded with veggies (even sprouts!). They’ll munch kale chips like good ol’ Lays. There are toddlers who embrace food experimentation without a second thought, making a parent’s work as easy as: Insert beet in mouth.
Or rather, I’ve heard —usually through braggy social media posts — there are kids like this. But these are not my kids. My feeding journey with a challenging six-year old young man and a three-and-a-half-year-old lady with ideas of her own can feel like hauling two over-tired, over-stimulated kids through Target at Christmastime.
Not all that fun.
The truth is, eating has never been an easy thing at our house, and we have worked with some talented and supportive specialists who still provide us guidance on this food adventure. We don’t have a typical house. But I know we are not alone. No matter the age, gender, or temperament, every kiddo — pardon the pun — has some beef about mealtime.
So, how do you feed children with, let’s say, uniquely refined taste buds? How do you feed small ones who bark at the sight of a green thing on their plates? What about throwing food, anyway? (I know this has happened at your house, right?) Will your kids ever “eat a rainbow?” Why does mealtime feel so impossible many days?
Help is on the way! In writing this piece, I reached out to a couple of mothers who have had great success feeding their children balanced, healthy meals. One, Danelle Martin, heads a health and wellness Facebook group for parents in my town. The other, Katie Voelker, is an occupational therapy assistant and a mother of three (two of which pack their own lunches now!). Katie speaks from her experience at home, transforming a traditional meat-and-potatoes menu into one packed with healthier choices. I also turned to a couple of well-loved blogs, including Weelicious. I’ll add my own lessons learned as a determined momma who, one frustrated night, resorted to creating a visual menu. At the end of the day, meals are supposed to be an enjoyable time when the family gathers, shares, and maybe even eats the same type of food. I’ll admit, many nights we are far from this reality. I might not be an expert, but at the very least, I have figured out what doesn’t work—for us. Having a plan in place is key, and so is sticking to your guns, but above all, patience is the essential ingredient to healthy eating with kids.
Give Up Some Control
There are a two ways to play tug-of-war with kids: pull harder, or drop the rope. At our house, dropping the rope is often helpful. I’m talking about giving up a little control, or at least allowing the younger set to feel like they have some choices.
Requests to “eat one bite” usually are not met with loving agreement. A better approach for us is to serve up a tiny portion — then let it be. When there’s no attention gained from a dispute, the whole scene feels more peaceful. The tug is over. We’re not playing. And it’s amazing what a relaxing environment will do.
With this low-key, put-a-meal-on-the-table method (and let it be!), I have witnessed some tiny tastings — a nibble of red pepper, for example. But the second we overpraise (“Wow! You tasted pepper! Isn’t it gooood!”), our efforts go downhill. Less is more here.
Don’t get me wrong, we do not place food on a plate and then — tada! Success! Not at all. And I often do not feel so Zen at mealtime. I do get frustrated. But there’s a greater chance of trying a food when everyone is relaxed and no one feels controlled.
Another strategy is offering a controlled choice: giving your kiddo a say, with boundaries. “Do you want to try the broccoli or green beans tonight?” This behavioral tool is helpful for us.
Danelle has dealt with her fair share of no-thank-yous at the table. If one of her kiddos refuses a veggie that is served — and we are talking tiny portions — she will set it aside. When the child requests a snack later when the other siblings are enjoying theirs, she reminds, “Just finish this and then you can have your snack.” This tactic usually works, she says.
Eating is complicated. Tackling the behavioral and sensory aspects of food require completely different approaches. No two families are the same. But what is true across the board is that a more relaxed, happy mealtime environment is better for everyone.
Work in the Goodies
Reading the book Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld gave Katie lots of ideas for hiding healthy foods in kid-friendly dishes. She cooked or pureed vegetables and added the mixture to savory favorites like macaroni and cheese. She turned her son on to pumpkin by stirring puree into pancakes. “He loves pancakes, and when he found out the pumpkin was in there, he realized it wasn’t so bad so he was able to try it in another context,” Katie told me. This is how she helped her children hone a taste for some healthy foods.
Having the right equipment in your kitchen is helpful for endeavors like juicing, preparing purees, or making smoothies. Katie invested in a high-quality blender and juicer. “Good machines can help transform foods,” she says.
Often, encouraging a palate for different foods takes some work. Danelle shares what it was like getting her daughter to eat salmon. The first time, “she about gagged,” she says. But her girl did eat one bite. (This is a win!) The next time, Danelle served cream cheese on crackers with a small taste of salmon on top. “It was more tolerable coupled with something she likes,” Danelle says.
When sneaking food feels like trickery, it doesn’t work at Danelle’s house. The moment her children see a hint of green when they were promised otherwise, the game is over. Who can blame them? The idea is not to deceive your kids into eating good stuff, though as Katie found out, the purees are helpful for building a taste for new foods.
With trying new foods, persistency can be the key. Try again — and again. Just put it on the plate. As I have learned, simply coexisting with the food (that is, not tossing it away outright) is a win. Touching it is a win. Smelling it — yes, a win. Eating isn’t all about swallowing if you’re working in new foods. So if a lonely green bean sits there, this is a step in the right direction. Really, it is.
Grow an Appreciation
Where does food come from, anyway? Maybe you have a really literal kid who questions what happens when food goes down the hatch. Maybe you have a question-asker who always wants to know “why?” Maybe your small one thinks corn grows in Aisle 11. Show your kiddos where food comes from and how it grows. Plant the seed for healthy eating, and build an awareness of how good food happens. It can’t hurt.
Start a container garden with tomatoes or a kid-themed garden plot in the backyard with some simple veggies. We planted green pepper, tomato, and cucumber last year. Two out of the three are crunchy, which is a preferred texture at our house. The kids helped plant and water the veggies, and we monitored their growth. Come harvest time, half of the minors here tasted. I think that’s a success, and we’ll try again this year.
Not interested in gardening? Visit the local farmer’s market. Show children the array of fruits, veggies, dairy, and meats. You can even get creative and make a scavenger hunt for different-colored veggies (yellow, red, green, etc.). Or, just show up on a weekend day and soak in the fresh air — and food.
Cook Up Interest
When children help prepare a dish, they own it. By involving kids in cooking, they help create a project they can take pride in, and they are more likely to taste it, say experts and moms who go this route. At our house, turning an avocado into guacamole resulted in lots of finger-dipping goodness. Even better, my son grabbed a whole carrot and chomped it Bugs-Bunny-style. (Sometimes, food goes off-road.) Now, he’ll eat carrots at the table.
I’d like to say this works every time, but that’s not the case here. We keep trying. Eating is complex and involves touch, taste, and smell — and then there’s the physical act of actually consuming the food and the behavioral aspect of “when” and “where.” That’s a lot. So, give yourself credit for the wins at your house. If you try a strategy like cooking together and it fails, try again — or try something else. Building healthy eating habits is a long-term effort, not a simple task you can achieve during a weekend.
Create a Calendar
If you feel like a short-order chef, you’re not alone. Kitchen refrains in child-packed houses can feel like a noisy deli. “Chicken tonight? What about quesadillas? I want [insert food here]!”
Set mealtime expectations by creating a weekly menu. Put it on paper, school-lunch style. Every week, Katie sits down with her family and she plots out a dinner plan for every night. She lets her children have some input so everyone can see their day on the calendar. When Monday rolls around and it’s taco night, there’s no negotiating. It’s on the calendar. This also helps when the family is off and running to different activities. Older children can help get dinner started.
I pulled together a simple, laminated menu board for our family that will help me plan dinners. For my son, I created a visual menu using Velcro strips and food chips. Since lately he is vocal about what he will eat when (“Meatballs are dinner, not lunch, mom.”) this will help us cross mealtime boundaries with foods.
Send Them Packing
Chips and junk food just aren’t available at Katie and Danelle’s homes. Sure, there are treats, but processed snacks are not a staple. So, when the time comes for children to pack their own lunches, they can choose among healthy options. Encouraging older children to pack their own lunches is important for a couple of reasons. You’re instilling independence and giving them some control over their menu so they’ll eat what they pack. These are habits that kiddos take with them for a lifetime.
When her children were younger, Katie says she had a lot of fun making themed lunches using cookie cutters to slice up fun-shaped sandwiches. But these days, she knows her shift toward healthier eating at home is working when she watches her daughter pack a banana for lunch or her son reach for an apple to snack on after school.
Weelicious has lots of great lunch ideas, but if these look too overwhelming, just choose one new food to try each week. Or adopt one new healthy habit, such as including apple slices. Thinking of healthy eating as a food journey rather than an overnight refrigerator sweep and wellness makeover makes it feel a lot more manageable.
It’s Never Too Late!
You can start making healthier choices for your family today, but you should start slowly. Don’t allow information overload stop you from getting started. Danelle admits that when she first started moving toward healthier foods at home, she felt bombarded by the sheer volume of resources on cooking, shopping, gardening, and other projects.
Danelle started with one simple change: buying organic milk. Then she swapped out white grains for whole wheat and started making smoothies. Soon she was blending her own seasoning mixes rather than buying prepackaged taco flavoring. She continued the healthy moves by cutting sugar in half when baking and serving plain yogurt sweetened with fruit. All of this happened over time, not in one sweep.
Now, Danelle has mastered bulk food prep — making several batches of meatballs or muffins, for example — to make mealtime less of a stress.
Recipes to Try
Here are a few tried-and-true meals that just might please your whole family. These are easy enough to toss together with ingredients you keep in the pantry.
Kids love to help add ingredients, stir, and pour batter into muffin tins. (They’ll also love eating these!)
Says Danelle: “I love this recipe for days when I have no idea what to make, and no time to cook. It’s made from ingredients I always have on hand in my pantry. It’s super healthy, takes about three minutes to assemble, and my kids all love it!”
Danelle says this is her family’s all-time favorite recipe — plus it’s easy to prep in advance.