Getting Your Kids to Eat What YOU Want Them to Eat

Nutrition for children is one of my passions.  It helps that I am a mom so I have a vested interest in the subject, however I have also worked with the WIC program for a couple of years now and have enjoyed helping families prepare healthier meals and snacks.  I also get questions from many of my fellow mommy friends who just want more ideas or tips on how to get their family eating better.  For this reason I thought I would do a blog post on the subject and share some of my favorite tips, suggestions, recipes, and resources.  As I always say however, EVERY child is different and so some ideas just do not work for some kids, but it is always worth a try (believe me, if I knew a way to get my son to eat broccoli, I would tell you, but I haven’t figured that out yet).  Persistence is key, but sometimes you just have to move on and try something new.
First I will say, family meal times are important.  If you aren’t regularly sitting down together for meals, at least dinner, then start there.  Kids and the whole family will eat better and healthier if they are together enjoying their meal.  Countless studies back this up.  No TV, no computers, no toys, no games.  Just you, the food, and each other’s company.  The more meals you can enjoy together the better.  We are pretty good at doing breakfast and dinner most days.  Lunch is more chaotic, but we try.  I know for a fact that my son eats better when I am there eating with him and he is likely to remain at the table longer because he wants to be with me.  Not to mention he also wants to swipe food from my plate, but I’m cool with that.  Manners will come later.  =)
Secondly, you need to plan ahead.  Healthy meals don’t just appear. And they generally don’t come out of boxes or bags.  One of my goals (which I don’t always achieve) is to meal plan each week so that I have a selection of recipes and ingredients on hand.  Now I only have one child (and many of you have two or more I’m sure) but it gets a bit crazy around dinnertime if I don’t have something planned.  That is when the frozen burrito or other convenience item might appear at our table, but I try to avoid it if at all possible.  Don’t get me wrong.  Those things are fine once in awhile.  The goal is just not to make it a habit. 
In order to meal plan you need access to some resources, aka, healthy recipes and cookbooks.  If you are one of those rare few I envy that can whip up a new meal sans recipe, well good for you.  Carry on.  But for the rest of us, a little help is necessary.  I am a big internet junky, so some of my favorite resources I have found there.  I also have a found a few good books that I frequently recommend.  I’ll list a few.  Feel free to suggest more.  I always love to know about new ideas.  **Not all of these are recipes, but some are more about general healthy meal principles or feeding suggestions.
Wholesome Baby Food —
Cookus Interruptus — (also great for some brief entertainment!)
World’s Healthiest Foods —
Super Kids Nutrition — 
Nourished Kitchen —
Ellyn Satter —
Dr. Sears —
Feeding the Whole Family —  by Cynthia Lair
The Splendid Grain — by Rebecca Wood
The Family Nutrition Book — by William Sears
Child of Mind:  Feeding with Love and Good Sense — by Ellyn Satter
Lastly, once you have your plan in hand, stick to it.  The kids don’t want veggie lasagna?  Tough.  Well, ok, I get a little lenient when it comes to young kids, like under the age of 3.  I think it is fair to have one “safe” food on the table, something you know they enjoy and will eat.  For instance, my son LOVES whole grain crackers.  Sometimes I wonder how many times in one day he can ask for a cracker.  He doesn’t even always eat it.  He just likes the comfort of having it there.  So I let him have a few crackers at the dinner table.  You know what?  He eats better when he has his “safe” food there with him.  It must, in some way, assure him that he won’t starve and gives him the courage the try the other things on his plate. Just an idea.  Like I said before, may not work for everyone.  Some kids with more of a will may need a tougher approach.  Let me just assure you though.  Your kids will not starve.  In fact, if you implement family meals, cook healthy (and tasty) recipes, and model eating these foods yourself, the likelihood of them accepting new foods goes up dramatically.  Worth a try I say.
Some other random tips/suggestions:  Keep snacking between meals to a minimum.  I am not good at this myself, but it is something I aspire to.  My son tends to be more of a grazer, which is not bad in and of itself, but it makes it more difficult for him to eat the foods I want him to at mealtimes.  Therefore, try your best to limit the snacks between meals and allow them to get hungry before meal time.  Feeling hunger is actually a good thing and will allow them to know the difference between full and hungry.  There are many adults, in fact, that do not have this skill because they are constantly snacking.  Not a good habit to get into.  A good rule of thumb is 3 meals plus 2-3 snacks per day, but naturally this varies between children. 
Another tip I just learned yesterday from one of the fabulous WIC moms, and wish I had implemented a long time ago: include a “green” food or other vegetable on your child’s place daily.  I have definitely included a lot of vegetables since my son started solids, but they haven’t always been very prominent — burried in a burrito or cooked into a quiche, for example.  I should have made more of a concerted effort to put both raw and cooked vegetables, in their whole and unadulterated states, on his plate every day just for the sake of familiarity.   This mom reports her daughter accepts most types of vegetables without question because of this.  In fact, broccoli is the first thing she eats off her place.  Amazing.  I only wish.   I guess it is never too late to start.
Need ideas for getting a particular food OUT of his/her diet?  At the risk of oversimplifying — keep it out of the house!  Yes you may need to put up with a few days of whining as they go through withdrawal, but if it’s not in the house, it’s not an option.  Your child will soon learn to make do with other foods.  Now,what if this desired food happens to be one of your favorites but one which you don’t want them having (say chocolate, or jube-jubes, for example).  I guess you need to hide them better.  I think it’s fine for parents to have their indulgences, but if it causes problems for the kids, keep that food well hidden during the day and never consume it in their presence.  Might sound hypocritical, but if a parent can’t give up a certain food and it starts to become a regular feature in their child’s diet (I see frequently at WIC), then I think it’s best they just be better at hiding it more selective as to when they consume it.
Also, most of you probably already know this, but never force feed!  You are more likely to set yourself up for food wars and control issues around food.  I try to be as nonchalant about it as possible.  “You don’t want to eat that?  That’s ok, we’ll try next time.”  And there will be a next time.  And a next time.  Offer repeatedly, but don’t force.  Research suggests it can take up to 20 tries to get a child to try or accept a new food.  Your job is decide what is on your child’s plate.  It’s their job to decide how much of it to eat. 
Another thing I heard from a client and have heard expressed from friends as well is that it is hard to cook with little ones running around.  “How am I supposed to cook anything with toddlers clinging to my legs and pining for attention?”  A client admitted rather shamefully to me today that she lets her daughters watch TV Sesame Street while she cooks because she otherwise wouldn’t get anything done (most don’t find that shameful, but she apparently did).  I hear you.  I am in that same boat many days myself.  I don’t have an answer, but I won’t judge you if you have the TV on for an hour or two each day so you can cook food for your family.  Besides, as they get older I am sure there are other activities you can use to occupy your children’s time (coloring, drawing, reading, etc).  For young kiddos, it’s just tough.  Do what you can.  Let’s just say there is a lot of choo-choo viewing that occurs in my house, because if my son isn’t asking for a cracker, he is begging for the choo-choo.  Sigh.  But no choo-choo AND eating.  I’m determined that those two things will not go together.  
So there is my long-winded and not entirely organized spiel (and I admit this is not comprehensive, so if you are running into a problem not covered here, please ask).  Hope you found at least one thing that might help in your quest for healthier meal times.  It’s a struggle for all of us, but it is also doable with a few resources and, hopefully, help from your spouse or partner.  Which reminds me of one more tip:  Be on the same page with your partner.  If you are both enforcing the same messages and same eating patterns, the greater the chance your child will turn out the same.
Now it’s your turn fellow mommies.  Share your tried and true tips for mealtime success!
Coming soon I will post part 2: Important nutrients for infants and kids.
And of course, a post about kids and meals wouldn’t be complete without a recipe.  This one is a favorite of ours ever since our son got hooked on quiche from the local bakery.  Being that this habit was getting a bit expensive, I found this veggielicious quiche recipe that won instant approval.  It also keeps great in the freezer and I can pull it out in a pinch.

Cheesy Vegetable Quiche
Serves 4-6
1/2 cup of diced onion
1 tsp olive oil
1 generous cup of broccoli florets, cauliflower florets, or a mixture of the two
½ cup shredded carrots
3 large eggs
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
2/3 cup shredded Cheddar Cheese
1 frozen, 9-inch deep-dish pie crust, preferably whole wheat and without trans fats (or make your own crust)
1. Pull the pie crust out of the freezer to let it thaw and preheat your oven to 400˚F.
2. Heat olive oil in a small frying pan and sautée onions gently until starting to brown, about 8 minutes.
3. Pick over the broccoli/cauliflower florets and trim to them to ensure that they are small enough and of uniform size. Bring a small amount of water to boil in a small saucepan and add the broccoli florets. Boil/steam for 2 minutes tops. Remove from heat, drain water and set aside.
4. Beat together the eggs, cream, milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Leave on counter during the rest of the preparation to allow it to come to room temperature.
5. Prick the bottom of the pie crust to prevent air bubbles from forming. Bake crust for 11-15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
6. Change oven temperature to 375˚F. Spread cheese evenly along the bottom of the pie crust. Distribute broccoli florets and cooked onions evenly over the cheese. Pour milk and egg mixture on top. Season with a bit more salt and pepper. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 35 – 40 minutes. Allow to cool a bit before serving. I actually turned off my oven a few minutes early and allowed the quiche to sit in the cooling oven for awhile, which kept it warm and cooking without overdoing it.

About Danielle VenHuizen

Registered Dietitian, Certified LEAP Therapist