Kids tend to be fussy eaters, and just about every parent understands the struggle of attempting to convince a sceptical child that broccoli is delicious or that carrots will help them see in the dark.
But even though our efforts to put healthy and well-balanced meals on the table often go unappreciated, a growing body of research shows that when approached the right way, healthy eating doesn’t have to turn mealtimes into a daily struggle.
So if you’re dealing with a picky eater or two of your own, here are a few ways you can get your kids genuinely excited about healthy food.
1. Lead by example
One of the most effective ways to encourage healthier eating at home and on the go is to lead by example. Research shows that children learn a lot about food by observing the eating behaviour of others, and one study found that preschoolers ate more of a novel food when they saw a teacher enthusiastically eating it.
So when your kids regularly see you eating and enjoying healthier food options, whether it’s a piece of fruit for snack or a large serving of vegetables at dinnertime, they’re far more likely to enjoy eating these foods as well.
2. Avoid referring to foods as “healthy”
Praising healthy food or talking about how strong it will make your child can actually backfire, according to a study from the University of Chicago. The researchers explain that kids are more likely to reject food when they’ve been told it’s good for them because they assume it can’t be healthy and taste good at the same time.
So instead of focusing too much on why certain foods are “healthy” or “unhealthy,” just try to serve healthy food options with each meal and lead by example.
3. Accept that kids have food preferences too
Even us adults have foods we enjoy more than others or foods we outright hate, so if your child doesn’t like a particular vegetable or type of food, don’t try to force it. Making a big deal about eating something will only reinforce the idea that it’s unpleasant and increase their anxiety.
Instead, experiment with different recipes and methods of cooking. For instance, if your child doesn’t like steamed broccoli, you could try sautéing it in a stir-fry or mashing it into their potatoes instead. Of course, maybe your child will never like eating broccoli, and that’s fine too, because there are plenty of other vegetables they probably will enjoy.
4. Give them choices whenever possible
Kids will generally be more willing to eat something if they’ve picked it out themselves. Of course, letting your five-year-old dictate what you eat may not always be the best strategy, but you can let him or her choose between two or more healthy food options so they feel that they actually have a choice in the matter.
5. Don’t ban junk food outright
Any time you ban something outright it will only seem more attractive to a child, so if you’re out somewhere and they want a chocolate bar or bag of crisps, don’t make a big deal out of it. Rather than telling kids that certain foods are off limits, focus on giving them tasty but nutritious snack options and avoid keeping “unhealthy” snacks in the house for special occasions.
6. Let them help with the cooking
If you want your kids to make healthier food choices and also enjoy the food they eat, you should encourage them to get involved with meal prep whenever possible.
A survey of fifth grade students in America found that kids who regularly helped out with the cooking showed a greater preference for fruits and vegetables than those who didn’t. Kids who cooked at home were also more confident about the importance of making healthy food choices.
So next time you’re in the kitchen, think of small tasks your child can help out with, whether it’s chopping vegetables or mixing something.
7. Visit farms and farmers’ markets
Another fun way to get your kids excited about what they’re eating is to go on outings to local farms or farmers’ markets. In addition to seeing where their food is coming from and getting acquainted with how it grows, these visits will also expose them to new types of food.
Find out if there are any farms in your area where you can do things like apple or strawberry picking, and encourage your kids to pick out new types of fruits or vegetables when visiting farmers’ markets or even just your local supermarket.
8. Get creative with dips and sauces
There’s nothing like an exciting sauce to breathe new life to one of your standby recipes, so get creative in the kitchen and look for healthy dips and sauces you can make together, whether it’s mushy peas, hummus, tzatziki or guacamole.
Kids will also love being able to dip dry foods, like carrot or celery sticks, into a new dip they’ve come up with themselves using whatever dressings and condiments they can find the refrigerator.
9. Watch cooking shows together
Since you likely already watch movies or TV shows together at the end of the day, why not look for some age-appropriate food and cooking shows that will get your kids excited about trying some recipes of their own. Some examples of food-related shows that might work include MasterChef Junior, Good Eats and Chopped.
10. Don’t give up too soon
One study found that kids need to be presented with a new food anywhere between eight and 15 times before they start to accept it. So don’t despair if your child doesn’t like a new food straight away, as it might just be a case of needing to get used to the taste and texture of it.
In short, if you want to encourage healthy eating habits, try not to make mealtimes a battleground and instead focus on leading by example and keeping things fun by introducing more variety and involving your kids in the meal prep process.
What are some of the things you do at home to make healthy eating fun for kids? Share your thoughts and tips with us in the comments.
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