Kids can be the toughest food critics. Gingerly place something cruciferous and green on your child’s plate, and it might just be met with a turned-up nose and a response more brutal than any insult Gordon Ramsay has ever hurled.
Negotiating with picky eaters at the dinner table is just one of those universal parenting dilemmas. And if you’ve dealt with this in your own home, you’ve probably wondered if you should just cave and throw some pizza or chicken nuggets in the oven to stave off any potential food fights.
The answer? Not just yet.
We turned to the pros — nutrition experts and celebrity chefs — to find out how they get their children to eat healthy. Here are their 13 top tips.
1. Limit snack times
Vicki Shanta Retelny, a registered dietitian in Chicago and a mother of two children, ages 11 and 10, says she limits snack time in her household. “I don’t allow them to snack after 3 p.m., and then they are good and hungry for dinner,” she says.
2. Cook together
Several chefs and nutritionists suggest cooking with your children as a way to essentially get them to be invested stakeholders in dinner. “By them being active participants in the kitchen, they have more of an opportunity and desire to try new foods,” Retelny says. Her family, for example, tried a new line of cooking kits called “Dinner Hero.” It was easy for her children to follow three-step recipes and help make the meals from scratch alongside her. “It’s great because they are learning how to follow a recipe, as well as measure ingredients and serve the meal,” she says.
3. Do a taste test
The taste test approach can take various formats, says Lisa Hugh, a registered dietitian from Maryland, who has two sons, one who is a good eater, and one who has a big appetite, but is picky. She suggests asking questions like, “Do you like these shredded carrots or these baby carrots better?” or “Do you like these cooked carrots better with butter and salt or plain?” Or, you can also serve a small portion as a “taste test” and ask your children what they like about it, Hugh suggests.
4. Play “red light, green light”
Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s elementary-aged boys Luka and Mateo happen to be great eaters. A few things the “Top Chef” judge says help: having his sons help him tend the backyard garden and re-presenting foods 10 to 12 times. (Asparagus went a few rounds in Colicchio’s household before it became a fan favorite). But, one rule that has helped contribute to their healthy eating habits is a divvying up the kitchen into categories, says Colicchio, a five-time James Beard Foundation Award winner, says. The boys can eat anything in the “green light” category of fruits and veggies. “They eat cherry tomatoes like it’s popcorn,” he says. Foods in the yellow category, like crackers, require them to proceed with caution and ask for permission. Sugar-laden beverages and candy are given the red light and are off limits.
5. Slowly transition to healthier foods
When Mary Delasantos, a certified nutritionist from Lake Havasu City, Arizona, adopted her children at ages 9 and 11, they were accustomed to salty and sugary processed foods. To get them to transition from processed foods to healthier options, Delasantos says she employed several strategies. Among them was a “slow transition.” “Our children said they hated vegetables, and they loved boxed mashed potatoes,” Delasantos says. “So we made the potato flakes, but we also took a bag of frozen broccoli or mixed veggies and processed them together in the food processor with the potato flakes.” After a while, she was able to get her children to eat mashed potatoes with fresh potatoes and veggies. And then baked potatoes stuffed with chunks of fresh veggies. “These little transitions helped them stay comfortable with the familiarity of what they loved, and still learn to enjoy healthier options,” Delasantos says.
6. Re-introduce a food 10 times
If your child refuses to eat a particular food, don’t give up right away, Ruder says. “It can take 10 or more attempts over several months before a young child will accept a new food.” Keep preparing a variety of healthy foods, she encourages, and remain patient but persistent.
7. Read packages together at the grocery store
Delasantos says she took her children to the grocery store with her every weekend and they were allowed to pick out foods the family would eat for the week. She set up parameters, though, on processed foods. For example, the foods couldn’t have any more than 3 grams of sugar per serving, the children needed to be able to pronounce all of the ingredients on the packages and the packaged food couldn’t have more than five ingredients. “They had fun reading packages and discovering new foods they could make and eat,” she says.
8. Give your food a fun name
That’s not just broccoli! It’s “dinosaur broccoli trees.” Making healthy food seem fun can get your young children to be more interested in eating it, says Dr. Sonali Ruder, an emergency medicine doctor, trained chef and blogger at The Foodie Physician. Ruder, who is the author of the cookbook “Natural Baby Food,” has a 4-year-old daughter who she’s test-run these strategies on. Ruder suggests fun names for food: Maybe that’s calling carrots “x-ray vision carrots” so your kids will be more excited about noshing on them, she says. “You can have them cut their food into fun shapes using a cookie cutter or serve fruits and veggies with colorful dipping sauces,” Ruder says. “Let your creativity run wild.”
9. Implement a “three-bite rule”
We’ve already suggested you may need to introduce a food over and over before children take a liking to it. But Delasantos found her children would sometimes embrace a food after the first few bites, and in one sitting. “We found that often their first bite of a new food was rejected as awful, but by the third bite, it was not so bad or even yummy,” she says. If three bites in one meal is pushing your kids’ limits too much, you can try one bite of the food or dish at three different meals, she suggests.
10. Balance flavors
Eboni Henry, who is from Chicago and a current contestant on “MasterChef,” says her four children are each picky eaters in their own way. Her go-to solution? Balance sweet and savory flavors. “My 9-year-old thinks that he’s allergic to fish just because he doesn’t like the way it tastes,” she says. “So when I go to make it, I make sure I serve something really sweet and something really savory with it.” The complex flavor profile distracts from the fact that he’s eating fish.
11. Serve it in a Bento Box
You could be fancy and call it a “deconstructed dinner.” But if you’re having a hard time getting your kids to eat, try serving the meal to them Bento Box-style. “Kids love bite-sized pieces, colorful foods and they like it all separate,” says Karen Firsel, who opened Jar Bar in Northbrook earlier this year. She suggests trying cubed chicken, sweet potato bites, hummus and whole grain crackers. “Or, make it a project for them to keep them busy and creative: Let them build little sandwiches with crackers, slices of apple, slices of cheese and even sprinkles of seeds or nuts.”
12. Use “green sugar” in smoothies
Smoothies are a great way to sneak more fruits and veggies into your children’s diets — so long as you aren’t loading them with sugary ingredients. To get this right, Rebecca Cafiero, a healthy lifestyle expert, recommends using a dehydrated greens mix to supercharge your smoothie. “I have some parents who tell their kids it’s ‘green sugar’ and let them liberally use it,” she says. “It’s sweetened naturally with mangos.”
13. Keep in mind: Even James Beard Award-winning pastry chefs can have picky children
Chicago-based pastry chef Gale Gand’s oldest child, Gio, was an adventurous eater. In fact, at age 2, he was asked by a fellow passenger on a plane about his favorite food and he responded: “Garlicky spinach.” Gand, a cookbook author and winner of the 2001 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef, says Gio aided her in cooking demonstrations as a young child and attended food festivals with her. She retells a story of him going off to camp at age 8 and confusing camp counselors as he deconstructed his sandwich, not knowing how to eat it because he was accustomed to dishes like veal meatloaf and sushi, Gand says.
Gand took credit for Gio’s adventurous eating: They gardened and harvested food together when Gio was young, and he joined her on grocery shopping trips. This tactile relationship with food makes it interesting, Gand says. “At 2 years old, he was sitting in the garden learning to grow vegetables,” she recalls.
Then, when Gio turned 8 years old, Gand had twins girls.
“I thought I was an expert at raising kids with a diverse palate,” she says.
Ella tends to an adventurous eater, and her twin sister, Ruby, is a picky eater who prefers a diet of white foods, like pasta, rice, chicken, mozzarella cheese and milk. It’s possibly Ruby is a “supertaster,” Gand says.
So, on any given night, Gand might prepare two different dinners.
The lesson here? Kids are unpredictable, and sometimes give even the best chefs around a run for their money!
“Once you have twins, you realize they come out pre-wired,” she says.
More from Make It Better:
- 4 Paleo-Friendly Restaurants in Chicago
- 10 Ways to Set Kids Up for a Night of Healthy Sleep
- The Benefits of Family Dinner (and 5 Easy Ways to Make It a Priority)
Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.