When it comes to children and eating, parents often feel they are speaking a whole different language from their children. In Kid Speak, words like “vegetable,” “healthy,” “nutritious,” and “balanced” are equivalent to words that just can’t be printed on this website. Meanwhile, children are also subjected on a daily basis to a marketing barrage the likes of which has never been seen before in history. Children can tell you the names of characters on chocolate-infused cereal boxes, talk about fictional polar bears who guzzle carbonated beverages, and share fast food commercial catchphrases and taglines. It’s enough to make any health conscious parent want to scream.
So, what can a parent do? Here are some tips to help make healthy eating not so difficult. We can attest to each of these tips working in an international Montessori preschool environment, getting children to actually want to eat their healthy lunches. We’ve had children come to us who insisted on eating nothing but prepackaged snack crackers, chicken nuggets, and sweetened coffee milk (it’s Japan – don’t ask), but two months later these same children were happily chowing down on raw bell peppers, tomatoes, and spinach while drinking whole milk or unsweetened green tea. These tips work.
Tip #1: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
To get children past the preconceived notions they may have, it is important to not give up too quickly. In my Montessori classrooms, it can take five, six, or even ten times that something is presented before the child takes to it. The same applies with foods. Yes, certain foods are accepted more quickly than others, but just don’t give up too soon. And even if your child shows a willingness to try just a little bit, encourage and praise him or her for the effort. You will soon see your child’s efforts grow.
Tip #2: Multi-Sensory Eating
I shudder at what passed for vegetables in my house growing up. Canned peas that were a shade of green that shouldn’t exist. Green beans that were mushy, stringy, and flavorless. Lima beans that still invoke violent memories from me. Don’t make this mistake. Try to involve as many of the senses as you can in your children’s food. Present as many natural colors as you can: reds, greens, yellows, purples, and oranges. Make your foods a variety of textures: crunchy, crispy, and smooth.
And of course, smell. If something smells good, the chances your child will try it go up enormously. The best part is that you can accomplish all of this without adding a ton of oils, sugars, or other artificial enhancements. (Although, I still don’t trust lima beans.)
Tip #3: Give Them A Choice
Strategic shopping is key. Don’t be hidebound to just one option when it comes to food. Be a bit flexible in your preparation and give your children some input on what they are going to eat.
For example, “What would you like tonight with your chicken: green beans, spinach, or eggplant?” By giving children a sense of control, they’ll be more receptive to your menu. You might find periods where a child will become fixated on just one ingredient (my own son was fixated on eggs for months, and would have been wiling to eat them every meal). That’s fine, be flexible, and present the food as an option more often, but in a variety of preparations. Just make sure to have meal times that don’t include the favorite ingredient as well, especially if the favorite ingredient tends towards the unhealthy side (e.g., steak shouldn’t be eaten every meal).
Tip #4: Let Them Get Involved
Kids will enjoy food more if they can take ownership of it. Give them the chance to help in preparation. Make food preparation a family fun activity. Young children can peel and chop (we’ve had children as young as four handling vegetable knives in our school, and there are specialty knives made for young hands) or even just rip apart leafy greens. Older children can be taught how to prepare foods.
Give them a hand in the meal preparation and they’ll want to try the results of their work. You’ll also find that children take pride in what they made as well, but be forewarned, they might want you to eat what they made as well (sometimes by shoving a spoon in your face).
Tip #5: Variety Is the Spice of Life
You do not need to become a Food Network chef, but finding multiple recipes that incorporate your basic ingredients will not only allow you to work in new options, but allow you to keep meal times from becoming boring. (Tip: I find stir-fry is a great way to introduce new vegetables.) Wednesday does not have to be meatloaf night, followed by Thursday chicken, and Friday fish. Even if you do wish to follow certain dietary guidelines that restrict ingredients, learn multiple preparations of your staple foods to keep them from becoming boring. And speaking of spices, finding a good variety of spices and herbs to add to your dishes can make even the most repetitive of ingredients unique. There is literally a world of flavors out there. Explore them, Culinary Columbus!
Tip #6: Real Food Is Real Good
Finally, something that I haven’t addressed yet, mainly because I think this can apply to both adults and children: find out just how wonderful real food can be. As a challenge, try to do a whole week’s worth of shopping with a minimum of excessive packaging or boxes with pictures all over them. Of course, your milk and eggs should come in cartons (unless you happen to live on a farm), but try to get your vegetables as just that – vegetables wrapped in their own natural packaging (leaves, rinds, peels and all). And your meat should look like, well, meat. As a start, try making grits, rice, or scrambled eggs for breakfast. You’ll be surprised the cost savings, the deliciousness of your meals, and perhaps just how grrrrrrrrr-eat food can actually be. Your children will, too.
Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Breaking Muscle.