“Just one more bite of your veggies then you can go play,” I overhear a frustrated parent say. It escalates when their child says no. For some parents every meal becomes a turf war and too many are becoming hostages. Do you feel like you are losing the battle when it comes to the healthy diet? You aren’t alone — many parents wonder, “How do I get my child to eat healthy?”
Unhealthy Diets Too Common in Children
Unfortunately, unhealthy diets are far too common. This is not just a household battle, but a national battle here in the United States. Childhood obesity rates are on the rise and have nearly tripled since the 1980’s. Nearly 1 in 3 children and teens are considered overweight or obese. (1) Parents know how important a healthy diet is, but we still see too many children who eat poorly.
According to one study, only 2% of teens eat the daily recommended amount of vegetables, and I wish they were eating more than the daily recommended amount. (2) It’s not just teens though, it starts younger. One survey found 27% of toddlers don’t have a single serving of vegetables in a given day and if they do it’s more likely to be a French fry. (3) Sorry folks, the French fry is no more a vegetable than the sugary ketchup you put on it.
Vegetables are a great way to get important nutrients, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber into your diet. The fewer vegetables a child eats, the more likely they are to eat processed food full of empty calories and harmful sugars. Many children eat plenty of foods but are starving for nutrients. Maybe your child eats healthier than the average child, but you know you want them to eat even healthier.
So, what do we do? We know that diets low in sugar and rich in whole foods, including vegetables can mean healthier outcomes, but how do we get there? Your child needs your help, but you are not alone. We have a list of tips from parents who are living this lifestyle. Let’s get your child to eat healthy without making it a battle.
8 Ideas to Help Your Child Eat Healthy
1) Try Not to Stress About Food
Remember we are all starting from somewhere and you must give yourself and your child a little grace in the process. Helping a teen develop good eating habits is going to be very different than a toddler. Not all toddlers will be the same either. Experiment and find what works for you and your child without making it a battle every day. Your goal should be to remove allergies and inflammatory foods while always pushing the envelope towards healthier options.
2) Be Prepared with Snacks
Snacks are a big part of the daily calorie intake for many children which means they might fill up on snack calories and they aren’t hungry for a meal. Be prepared with healthy snack ideas and for snacks on the go. Having fresh veggies cut up with dip for after school or right before dinner will make it easier for them to fill up first on veggies. Dip always makes veggies better and they get their healthy fats at the same time. Try our favorite dairy-free ranch or guacamole.
3) Make Space for Desserts and Sweet Snacks
You don’t want to go overboard on sugar but there are times where a dessert or sweet snack is appropriate. Be prepared for birthdays and other celebrations with healthier dessert options. Find your own treats that your children will get excited about that don’t necessarily have all the sugar and potential added chemicals.
Too much fruit or organic sugar is still too much sugar. Some of the moms around here also recommend having a separate drawer for what they call sweet snacks. There are healthier options for fruit snacks or fruit leather, but your child might ask for a version of these every time they ask for a snack. “But mom, I didn’t have a fruit leather today. I had a fruit snack.” Sorry kiddo, you already had a sweet snack. When you separate the sweet snacks, it helps them to keep other snacks in the rotation and minimize the sugar.
Get ideas for treat substitutions in this video with Christy Flynn:
4) Model Healthy Eating
Children learn healthy (or unhealthy) habits from their parents so make sure you are eating in a way that you hope they will eat when they grow up. Add twice the veggies to your plate, avoid eating sugar emotionally, and try new foods. When’s the last time you tried a new superfood or ate organ meat? Liver and other organ meats are so nutritious! Don’t just tell your children to eat healthy. You can show your children eating healthy is a part of strong, happy life.
5) Don’t Give Up
Just because your child turns their nose up at a food doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Keep reintroducing and eventually they might develop a taste. Also, don’t get discouraged if your child who used to love Brussel sprouts suddenly hates them. Trust me; they will likely start eating them again. Try different ways of preparing foods and just keep trying.
6) Offer Choices
Guide your child to healthy eating by giving them some control. Would you prefer carrots, Brussel sprouts or both? By giving your child a say in what foods show up on their plate they will be part of the process of making healthy choices.
7) Shop and Cook Together
Another way to help your children be part of the process is to shop and cook with them. It will make them excited for the food they are eating today and help them be better at being discerning eaters when they get older. When they bring you a package food they saw on a commercial, you can help them read the label. They will see ingredients they can’t pronounce or lots of added sugars. Teach them how those aren’t good. When they cook with you then you can show them that real foods don’t come from a box.
8) No Shame in Hiding Veggies
Go for it. Hide the vegetables. I’m always impressed by how creative moms and dads can be when they are hiding vegetables and there is no shame in being creative to get a few extra veggies in. The more veggies the better!
Ways to hide extra vegetables:
- Replace some (or all) of your rice or potatoes with cauliflower. You can buy riced cauliflower in a bag and for potatoes try this faux ‘tatoes recipe.
- Add extra spinach to your meatloaf. You can fit a lot of spinach in a meatloaf if you chop it up. Start with 2 cups but you can add even more. And if your kids see it, just call it basil.
- Make your own spaghetti sauce with extra veggies. Many canned sauces have loads of sugar but you can sweeten your sauce with pureed sweet potatoes.
- The kids won’t even notice the spinach or medicinal mushrooms in a smoothie like this chocolate smoothie or this peanut butter smoothie.
- Replace some (or all) of your noodles with spaghetti squash or zoodles. Try it with spaghetti or your other favorite pasta dishes like this ribbon pasta recipe.
- Burgers are a great way to get in extra vegetables. Try a recipe like this salmon burger recipe.
- Soups are a great place to hide extra vegetables because the right vegetables absorb the flavors around them.
- You can even get extra veggies in their brownies and they won’t know it. Try these no-bake brownies. Every little bit counts!
Raise Healthy Eaters Who Become Healthier Adults
If you want to raise healthy eaters, then you have to help your child to eat healthy. Fighting can be exhausting so use these idea and tips to adopt a lifestyle for your children. There is a lot of marketing that goes into selling unhealthy foods and that processed junk has chemicals in it that tell their brains that it tastes good. Help them learn the importance of eating healthy, whole foods and how it can fuel their body for health. We all win when we eat better.
Written by Dr. Patrick Flynn
Learn more about raising healthy children in this video with Dr. Mitch Sutton:
Resources for Raising Healthy Eaters: