By Alan Miles
Our kids had some strongly held convictions about their food when they were young — convictions that made good nutrition a challenge.
Our oldest girl wanted only melted cheese carefully removed from casseroles, pizza and the like, making sure that none of the other ingredients were attached. Our son would eat nothing that was green, yellow or orange (and there aren’t a lot of blue vegetables). The middle daughter decided she wouldn’t even try anything she didn’t already like — at age three. And the youngest took all the peculiarities of her siblings to heart and made “yucky” one of her first words.
We leveraged nutrition into this crazy quilt of food preferences using these three healthy tips for picky eaters:
1. Subversion: We would sneak in “fortifiers” to boost the nutritional value of the few foods the kids liked. Wheat germ was mixed into the universally palatable mac and cheese to add vitamins and minerals. Pinches of nutritional yeast added B vitamins, protein and iron to popcorn and smoothies. As a special treat, we added a little molasses to warm milk, and it was soon a favorite. By making our own yogurt, we reduced the sweetener used to only fresh fruit. And gradually, with some resistance, we converted all pasta to whole grain.
2. Gamesmanship: We provided motivation while introducing elementary nutritional concepts as well. I’ve read that the average American elementary-age kid receives about 3.4 hours of food–related education per year — less than the amount of TV most of them watch each day. (Source: http://visual.ly/bring-food-education-back)
To teach our kids about healthy eating, we created a simple chart with color-in spoons to mark the servings of each kind of food eaten and called it a Good Eating Plate. Each kid had a chart that looked something like this:
For the most part, the reward for completing your chart was the simple satisfaction of doing so, but occasionally there would be a special (but healthful) treat — especially when the results were good across the board.
The chart worked surprisingly well. The kids really enjoyed coloring in the spoons — to the point where my son would voluntarily snack on an obviously orange carrot so that he could color in his last veggie spoon. We would check the charts and offer snack or dinner choices that helped fill in blanks, switching our role from adversary to helper. And the kids did learn a little about food groups and a balanced diet in the process.
3. Flexibility: We avoided arbitrary rules and let the kids make as many of their own decisions as possible. We didn’t worry about “spoiling dinner,” for example. If someone wanted a “chart food” like an apple or hard-boiled egg right before dinner, it was no problem. We were also flexible about the types of foods eaten at different times of the day. Rice and beans made a perfectly acceptable breakfast and granola was fine for lunch. And, finally, we gave up the notion that we all needed to eat the same thing at dinner. While we didn’t provide a restaurant-like menu, we did keep nutritious, easily prepared substitutions on hand. There was usually a pot of cooked rice in the refrigerator, for example, that we would gladly heat up quickly for whoever didn’t like the main dish that night. Cottage cheese and unsweetened applesauce were easily called upon if someone wasn’t up for trying a new side dish.
Each family is different, but the combination of these three strategies made good nutrition manageable — and even fun — for our four finicky eaters.
How do you help your kids develop healthy eating habits?
Healthy, kid-friendly recipes: