Whenever the issue of healthy eating comes up, people frequently tell me that they want to incorporate more healthy foods into their diets, but are frustrated that when they cook healthy meals, their children won’t eat them. Or that their kids only like “X, Y, & Z”, and they don’t want to cook separate meals for everyone. And I get it. Having two, ten-year-old boys in the house, trust me- I get it! Our boys have come a long way in the 6+ years that we’ve been eating plant-based and although they still have a long way to go, I’m confident that they’ll be able to make healthy food choices for themselves when what they eat is no longer up to me. Here’s what we’ve found to be the most effective ways so far to help them make healthy choices daily:
- Keep a large bowl of fruit visible & prep veggies so they’re easy to grab and throw in lunches. We have a snack rule in our house that says you don’t need to ask for a snack if you’re choosing fruits or veggies, so those tend to be the first snack items our kids reach for. Make it easy for them by washing and cutting fruits and vegetables and storing them in glass or otherwise see-though containers. We also keep a huge bowl of fruit in the middle of the table that we constantly switch up for variety. It could have any combination of apples, bananas, oranges, kiwis, plums, pluots, pears, mango, pineapple, and pomegranates. If something gets too ripe to eat, I throw it in the juicer or blend it into a smoothie so it doesn’t get wasted.
- Put a salad on the table every. single. night. I started making it a point to serve a salad at every dinner about 3 years into our plant-based journey. At first, we just put a small scoop on the kid’s plates each night without making a big deal about it. They didn’t touch it right away, but somewhere down the road they picked up their forks and now, I have two salad eaters. Sometimes, they even choose to order salads at restaurants! It may be slow going, it may mean offering all sorts of new dressings to try or new combinations of veggies and greens, but be consistent and make salad a normal part of every diner (and lunch too!) Baked potato and salad bar are a dinner staple around here and it’s fun for the kids to add whatever they want to their salads on those nights.
- Incorporate smoothies and banana “ice cream” instead of processed snacks. This is probably one of the easiest (and most delicious!) ways to add fruits, veggies and all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phyto-nutrients and fiber that come along with them because almost all kids love smoothies and banana “ice cream”! If you need an easy smoothie recipe, try this one and if you’ve never made banana “ice cream” before, it’s simply frozen bananas, blended in a food processor (I typically add a splash of vanilla and a bit of plant based milk) and then topped with what ever you’d like; fruit and granola for breakfast or chocolate chips and peanut butter for dessert! I’ll write a post on this soon but let me just say, my kids feel like they’re getting away with something when they get banana nice cream for breakfast ;-)!
- Talk to your kids about the power of advertising.
Despite what food companies and just about every kids’ menu in the US wants you to believe, there is no such thing as “kid’s food”. Children should be eating the same healthy, albeit sometimes boring foods that everyone else should be eating. They don’t need funky artificial colors, sprinkles galore and every single morsel of food cut into the shape of their favorite characters. This is a trap, don’t fall for it. Try talking to your children about what marketing is and why companies advertise their foods (and toys for that matter) the way that they do. This is an important life skill anyway and you may be surprised by how effective it can be. My kids make jokes now when they see food/beverage commercials because they understand that the advertiser is trying to make them think that they’ll be really cool if they simply drink Coke or Pepsi or Gatorade or eat Gushers or Poptarts or McDonalds… etc. Kids are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for, but they need you, their parents, to foster these important conversations so that they know how to navigate the constant bombardment of unhealthy food marketing that our culture has accepted as normal.
- Don’t battle.
Everyone, including your children, want dinner time to be enjoyable. We don’t have a clean plate rule in our house but we do expect our kids to try at least one bite of everything and in general, we don’t offer seconds of anything unless they’ve eaten all their veggies. But if they don’t like what we’re having, we don’t force them to eat it. They can have a piece of fruit or half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for snack if they’re hungry later. We’d rather encourage them to be willing to try something and know it’s okay if they don’t like it, than to dread sitting down at the table because they’re afraid they’ll be forced to eat something that they really hate. This change in expectation has really changed our kid’s attitude about food. They look forward to trying new things now whereas a few year ago, one of our boys was literally terrified of unfamiliar foods. No one likes everything and kids are especially sensitive to new tastes and textures. We try to respect that and celebrate the effort of trying something new, not necessarily the outcome.
- Get them involved in the process
Ask for help. My boys are now great assistants when I remember to set aside certain jobs for them. Sometimes, I need help prepping (washing, peeling, cutting…), other times, I need their help cleaning dishes as we go so that we don’t sit down to eat with a counter full of messy dishes waiting for us when we’re done. They’re great at making sauces or just sauteing some onion so that it doesn’t burn while I work on the next task. Sometimes, I simply ask them to set the table and pick a music playlist. The point is, kids at just about every age can be helpful. Being able to prepare a meal gives them confidence and helps prepare them to live on their own one day, without relying on pizza and ramen noodles.
*You know your kids and what they’re ready for. Always teach them the safe and proper ways to use kitchen equipment and be sure that you’re there to supervise them if they’re using a knife, the stove top, food processor, or anything else that could be considered dangerous.
Keep in mind that it’s what we show them daily that becomes normal to kids. Even if they barely touch their salad, if they see if on the table everyday at dinner, they are going to assume it’s a normal and expected part of the meal. And if they go to a birthday party and eat pizza and cake, they’ll be able to appreciate it as a treat because they’re not eating it twice a week as a normal meal. Keep fighting the good fight, our children’s health and well-being are so very worth it!
I’d love to hear from you in the comments; let me know what’s worked and what’s backfired for you and your family when trying to help your kids eat healthy!