by Darya Rose
I don’t have children myself, but many people have asked me for tips to get their kids eating healthier. So for the past few months I’ve been reading the scientific literature and talking to parents around the world to uncover the secrets of getting kids to eat their greens.
The good news is it is not impossible. The bad news is that it requires consistency and persistence from the parents, and it won’t be easy. But if you’re willing to stick to your guns, you should come out triumphant in the end.
By far the best predictor of a child’s eating behavior is the eating patterns of her parents. If vegetables and healthy foods are relegated to an afterthought in your household, it’s tough to expect your kids to take to them. Kids eat what they know, and they won’t ask for a special meal if they do not know it is an option.
2. Make food fun
Kids love to play make believe. They also love games. Broccoli can be intimidating to a kid hoping for macaroni and cheese. But if he is a dinosaur who needs to eat five miniature trees in order to outrun a tyrannosaurus rex, suddenly those florets are a lot more interesting. Relating healthy food to fun things the child already loves and turning it into a game is a great way to get a few bites of greens down the hatch.
3. Get them involved
Children are more invested in a meal if they help with its preparation. Taking your kids with you to the farmers market or grocery store and letting them pick one or two things to cook for dinner can make them far more excited to eat it later. Better yet, start a garden and teach them how to plant and harvest their own. Letting them clean carrots, snap beans, mix the dressing and set the table gives them a sense of pride and makes them more enthusiastic and cooperative at meal time.
4. Enforce the “one bite rule”
Research consistently shows that children who have initially rejected a food must be exposed to it at least 8-10 times for the food to be accepted. Many parents have had success with the “one bite rule,” requiring the child to try at least one solid mouthful of a rejected food whenever it is served. After enough exposures the food will be more familiar to the child and usually they begin to rate it more favorably.
5. Don’t force them to finish
One bite is different from finishing your plate. One of the biggest misconceptions among parents is that forcing their child to eat a food she doesn’t like will get her to change her behavior. However, fighting and punishments create a negative meal experience, and the child will learn to associate food with the bad feelings. Negative food experiences have the opposite of the desired effect and actually increase picky eating tendencies. Require one bite, but try not to start a fight.
6. Reward good behavior
On the other side of the coin, creating positive food experiences can decrease picky eating tendencies. Research has shown that rewarding a child for trying one bite of a rejected food with things like stickers makes it easier for them to try the food. They are also more likely to rate the food positively in the future.
7. Understand their values
Children don’t see the world as adults do, and as a result they have very different values. They could care less about health—most kids think they’re invincible—so telling them a food is healthy is unlikely to get you very far (and can often backfire). On the other hand, most children feel limited by their size and wish to be bigger and stronger. Explaining that broccoli “helps you grow” is therefore more effective than, “it’s healthy” or “because I said so.”
8. Offer diverse food colors
One thing you have working in your favor is that children like colorful foods. You can expose them to more colors by adding more vegetables to their plates. While adults tend to like flavors mingled together, children often prefer them separate. So you may have better luck making separate vegetable dishes instead of a big, mono-color casserole.
Another reason to cook different vegetables separately is that children love when their food is designed into patterns on their plate. Unlike adults, who prefer foods clumped near each other in the center of the plate, kids like their food separated into piles around the perimeter. If you shape it into a heart or smiley face, they’ll like it even more. This is another way to make food fun.
10. Keep at it
Some children will be more difficult than others, and will require more effort and patience. It’s important to realize, however, that the habits they develop at a young age will remain with them long into adulthood. For your sake and theirs, it is worth solving picky eating problems as soon as possible. Continue to set a good example, create fun, positive experiences around food, let them help in the kitchen, enforce the one bite rule and do anything else you can to keep exposing them, in a pleasant way, to the healthy foods they reject. Your persistence will pay off.