How Do I Transition My Kids to a Healthier Diet?

“Just let ’em starve! They’ll eat when they’re hungry.” Nope, I’m sorry – that approach is antiquated and just doesn’t work any more. Times are different and so is our food and the health of our children. Of my three kids, one is fairly adventurous and really enjoys good food, the second has significant food phobias and spent a solid year in weekly eating therapy sessions (did you know those existed?), and the third has biologically-based intolerance that eliminate two major food groups. Needless to say, I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to navigate picky appetites, food intolerance, and adequate nutrition. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s getting easier. And this sort of thing is becoming more common – just ask the parents you know!

When I first got the brainstorm to share some tips and reminders, I was hoping I could come up with 10 solid ideas. You guys, once I sat down to write them out, I discovered my husband and I have tried so many approaches I could write a few chapters about it! Some of these ideas I’ve learned from other people and sources, and the rest we’ve developed on our own, just to maintain sanity at the Taft House. I hope some of them are helpful to you. Some are geared specifically towards little ones, and others can be adapted for tweens and teens. Use your imagination, and remember – PATIENCE and PERSISTENCE.

  1. Pair a new food with a familiar favorite. In our house, scrambled eggs make a frequent appearance because all three kids enjoy them and they are inexpensive and quick to make. And if the weird-looking vegetable freaks them out, at least there are scrambled eggs to settle their nerves.
  2. When trying an unfamiliar food that causes some anxiety, invite kids to sit on mom or dad’s lap to test it out. This has worked wonders with our middle child. It’s how he began eating salad, eggs, barbecue, and spinach.
  3. When eating out, ask your server to skip the kids’ menu. Instead, help your child find something yummy off the regular menu – maybe a couple healthy appetizers or a portion of an adult meal.
  4. Add a favorite condiment for dipping. Yes, I realize ketchup doesn’t qualify as a vegetable (not even close), but if it encourages kids to try something new, embrace it. Just keep portions modest and if possible, try the paleo versions. And ease off as time goes on. My kids love honey…luckily we have our own bees to keep costs down!
  5. Look for preferred presentations. For instance, if your child likes burgers, begin switching out the type of meat – turkey, lamb, chicken, and bison can all be made into delicious burgers. AND – it’s fairly easy to hide a few veggies in the mix.
  6. Add an element of whimsy and fun! Let them eat with toothpicks or chopsticks, or use a favorite twisty straw for a healthy smoothie.
  7. Find a healthier version of a favorite unhealthy food. My kids, like most, love French fries. As a substitute, I make roasted potatoes (ALL THE TIME) tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper. They love them!
  8. Have kids help with recipe selection, grocery shopping, and meal preparation. My middle child helps me make Daddy’s eggs on the weekend and it makes him so proud!
  9. Eat the rainbow. Make copies of a black and white rainbow. Each time your child eats a food of a new color, they can color in that band of the rainbow. For eager eaters, you could do this daily. For more hesitant eaters, maybe one rainbow to last a couple days, or even a week.
  10. Accept baby steps. Step one is to allow the food on their plate. Then touch it. Smell it. Lick it. Take the tiniest little bite. Keep in mind this process might span weeks, months, even years. And that’s okay.
  11. Look for trends in preferred foods. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that your picky eater is drawn to a certain color, shape, texture or taste. Weird as it sounds, one of my kids seems to be more accepting of foods that are round. Work with that!
  12. Talk to your kids at an appropriate level about the mind-body-food connection. Explain that sugar makes it really hard for their bodies to fight infections and their brains to concentrate. It affects their mood and also disrupts their sleep (among other things).
  13. Keep in mind how common food intolerance has become. If your child refuses to eat that cheese stick or eat the tomatoes on their salad, it could be that those foods legitimately make them feel ill. Don’t force kids to eat anything.
  14. Remain calm and neutral about food that is accepted or rejected. Your only job is to continue to offer healthy choices. Let your child decide what goes in their mouths.
  15. Minimize, if not eliminate, snacking. This probably isn’t feasible at the toddler stage, but under most conditions, older kids are perfectly capable of waiting until the next meal to eat again.  True hunger is a great motivator to try something new!
  16. Offer only healthy options and keep junk food out of your house. If kids realize THIS IS IT and there is nothing to “hold out for,” they are more likely to eat what’s provided.
  17. Plate small servings when introducing a new food. If kids know there’s only one or two bites there, it’s a little less intimidating than two big spoonfuls of something green and weird.
  18. Model and insist on positive language about food. At our house (we learned this from my in-laws), we say, “I don’t care for this food yet/right now.” Those words leave the door open for change. “This is gross! I hate this!” does not.
  19. Set a good example. You know this. Kids pick up on our attitudes and habits. If mom never sits down to eat a well-balanced meal with the kids, they learn that nourishing our bodies with good food isn’t important. If dad hates vegetables, you better believe kids will follow suit.
  20. Set a specific date to begin change. Kids appreciate a heads up. It can be the first day of the week (Starting Monday, mom and dad aren’t allowing snacks between meals), the first day of the month (Beginning on May 1, we won’t be eating out any more at Chick-Fil-A or McDonalds), or the first day of the year (On New Year’s Day, we will begin trying one new food a week).
  21. Save treats for special occasions, and be very conservative with your definition of “treats” and “special.” Special occasions are becoming so commonplace, they’re really not special anymore. And our society has gotten so far off the track that we often confuse desserts with snacks. (Fruit gummy snacks and donuts are a great example).
  22. Don’t replace unhealthy foods when the box/bag/can is empty. When it’s gone, IT’S GONE. If you have a teenager that insists on Fritos or Red Bull or whatever, tell them they can buy whatever they want with their own money. Mom and Dad aren’t paying for that stuff anymore.
  23. Clearly communicate your new dietary goals with your spouse, teachers, friends, babysitters, childcare providers, family members. Get people on board with your plan.
  24. Make a game out of it. Dad will eat liver and Mom will eat sushi when you try some broccoli.
  25. Set rules and boundaries with snacks. One rule we try to enforce – If you don’t eat your dinner, mom and dad get to choose your bedtime snack. If you try a little of everything, you get to choose your snack.
  26. For littles, try using divided trays. This reminds me to get a variety of foods on the plate.
  27. Let kids choose the healthy dinner menu once (or more) per week. We eat a lot of Italian meatballs around here!
  28. If you have a child who refuses to eat and throws tantrums over food, immediately and calmly remove them from the table and place them in a safe room far from the kitchen. Don’t allow their antics to ruin mealtime for everybody else.
  29. Don’t make assumptions about what your kids like and dislike. My 3-year old loves olives and pickled onions. Who knew? Not me – until he grabbed some off my husband’s salad and devoured them.
  30. Turn off TV and remove other distractions at meal time. This teaches children to appreciate the variety and tastes of food provided and trains them to stop eating once satisfied instead of mindlessly shoveling food into their mouths.
  31. Offer a meaningful incentive for adventurous eating. For example, if everybody in the family tries one new food in a set amount of time, we go to the movies together.
  32. Recognize and celebrate all steps of progress! This is slow, character-building work. Believe me. Don’t give in and don’t give up!