How do I get my child to eat healthy food? If you ever feel as though you’re alone as a parent, just start searching for answers on that and related issues. Children are known to be fussy and refuse to eat most of the foods we know are healthy. Most of them live on a diet of breaded chicken and fries and they really hate vegetables like broccoli.
My mom will tell you that I was one of those fussy children, and I’m not a whole lot different today. I dislike strong tastes and there are certain food textures that I have problems eating. Some foods, though, I detest for one simple reason – I was forced to eat them even after expressing strong dislike.
So when I become a mom, one thing was certain – no one would force my children to eat food they hated. But I wanted to have healthy children who ate good food.
There’s nothing wrong with splurging – sometimes
Have you ever tried to ignore a child who wants a sweet treat? The thing is, though, there’s not a thing wrong with allowing treats.
Junk food should never really be forbidden.
Any time we forbid something, we make it even more desirable. The mister tells me about how his father would buy Pringles chips and then hide them from the children. These days I laugh when I see a tube of Pringles show up at home because I know he’ll eat half of the package before he remembers that he doesn’t like them at all. I’m the same way with maraschino cherries. I don’t actually like them very much, but they were forbidden in our house, so I can eat quite a few before I remember.
You can use this to your advantage (more on that in a bit).
Since forbidding treats often backfires, there are a few strategies you can use.
Limit sweets for babies. In Gulliver’s Travels, the wise horse people kept children away from sugar until they were five. With varying degrees of success, I have done this with my children. Without an early education in that intense sweetness, children become much more aware of how sweet treats make them feel. It’s rather a great feeling to hear your child turn down a second cookie, saying “No, thanks. Too much sugar makes my tummy hurt.”
Control quantity and frequency. In other words, restrict how much and how often our children eat these foods. Picking up snack packs of treats at Halloween provides easy portion control, or you can portion a larger package into smaller reusable containers.
Like many families, November 1 found us with a huge pile of junk food. What to do, especially since my children have never eaten sweets in large amounts? I divided the treats into large baskets – one for single serving chips (including cheesies, popcorn, pretzels), one for anything chocolate, one for anything with nuts, and one for sheer junk (Rockets, suckers, marshmallow candies, etc). When we are packing school lunches, the boys know that they can pick one bag of chips and one sweet treat.
Far better to have treats on hand, in moderation.
Sweet cereal in moderation
It is certainly possible to let children enjoy those delicious, sweet, dessert-like cereals, as long as it’s not a regular feature in their diet.
One way to allow sugary cereal without putting them into sugar shock is to serve it as a topping. Children can add a little bit of a sweet cereal to their bowl, but the majority has to be another healthy cereal. For example, sprinkle a handful of the sugary cereal on top of a big bowl of the healthy one.
Instant oatmeal is the equivalent of those dessert-like dry cereals. If your children insist (and eventually, they’ll want what their friends eat), then compromise. One packet of intensely sweet instant oatmeal requires a healthier, low-sugar packet (or two!).
Healthier salad dressings
There’s nothing at all wrong with salad dressings. Maybe you want to eat salads or raw vegetables without dips or dressings, but it’s just mean to force that on a child.
The simplest salad dressing I know, and probably one of the healthiest, is a mixture of live culture apple cider vinegar and olive oil. And you might have a child who thinks that that’s great, especially with a little bit of grated Parmesan added. But I don’t know many children who will refuse to dip vegetables into a thick and creamy dish of strained yogurt and practically everyone loves hummus. (If you have a nut allergy, just do what I do – leave out the tahini. It’s slightly different, but it will still work)
Check out these healthy salad dressings at Healthy Seasonal Recipes. There’s sure to be one to tempt your child – and yourself!
Oatmeal and fruit
Oatmeal is such a healthy food. Some children will be willing to eat a big bowl of oatmeal in the morning and if yours will, that’s great. If they won’t, try one of the many other ways that it can be prepared.
Those who have a copy of my massive cookbook A Cabin Full of Food are often surprised to find an entire section on oatmeal recipes. One of my favourites has always been Mennonite Baked Oatmeal. It’s so commonly eaten among my Mennonite friends that several women insisted that any back to basics book on home-cooking had to include it. However, there are many other delicious and healthy recipes in that section, all of which feature oatmeal.
Healthy food doesn’t need to be dull and tasteless, after all.
Peanut butter sandwiches
If you have children, you probably have peanut butter sandwiches. And that’s perfectly okay. Like so many other foods that straddle the healthy/unhealthy line, it’s not so much the peanut butter sandwiches but the quality of the ingredients you choose.
Unless your children have nut allergies, there’s nothing wrong with peanut butter sandwiches.
But … use whole grain bread. Either make fresh, homemade peanut butter or choose a variety without preservatives and added sugar. And instead of sugar-filled jelly, try it Elvis-style with sliced bananas.
Those sugar-filled smoothies that the stores sell? Not healthy at all! My children, though, drink smoothies all the time.
No, I’m not a terrible mother (well, maybe I am, but not because of this). The truth is that a blender and a few simple ingredients let you make healthy smoothies in just a few minutes.
Basically a healthy smoothie consists of:
- Maybe vegetables
- A bit of protein
Do you see what’s not in there? Sugar and preservatives. You don’t need them. Fruit has plenty of sweetness and children will love your smoothies even without the sugar.
A healthy smoothie usually combines fruits and vegetables with a little protein. There’s no added sugar or preservatives. Kids love the sweet taste, so they tend to be frequent requests.
My favourite smoothie trick is to toss peeled bananas into the freezer when they’re just starting to get soft. That’s when they’re very sweet and delicious. To make a wonderful smoothie, put a frozen banana in the blender and add milk to the consistency you want. Of course, you can add almost anything you want along with the milk and banana. Other fruit, frozen or not, or a bit of cooked vegetables are delicious. For adults, add a bit of instant coffee (but maybe not with the other fruit and vegetables!)
Smoothies allow parents to sneak in things like kale or carrots that their kids may not want to eat in the raw form. As everything is blended together, the children may not even notice the extra fruits and vegetables that are in the drink.
As a quick note, your blender can be your best friend when it comes to getting nutrition into your children. Because I have issues with a lot of food textures, my father once made a cooking experiment. He took all of the mushrooms, onions and carrots that he planned to put in a meatloaf and blended them with an egg. He then mixed that into his ground beef, adding rolled oats as a thickener.
Since the texture issue was eliminated, we discovered that I have no problem with the taste of those vegetables in a cooked dish. The same can be done with spaghetti sauce or tomato soup.
Are you sure you’re old enough?
Honestly, I can be a real stinker of a parent at times. Years ago, when I realized that children (well, people) crave what is forbidden, I decided to use it to my advantage.
This delicious, wonderful salad? Oh, I’m not really sure you’re old enough for this. This is only for big people.
Actually, I need to be really honest here, because my grandfather taught me this, by example, when I was about six. You see, he really enjoyed eating headcheese on crackers. He bought it from a pork farm in the community that made it by hand in small batches. But despite the fact that this was clearly a gourmet product and a real treat for Grampy, well … headcheese is not a typical treat for little children.
But because Grampy insisted that it was a very good treat and only for really important big people, I still love headcheese to this day.
For my children, it’s broccoli. Start with fresh broccoli from the garden. Declare that it is a special type of tree that only big people can eat, and suddenly the florets are disappearing from the stalks. Delicious dips like hummus or strained yogurt can help, of course.
Children need variety in their diet, a role model (like my grandfather and his headcheese) and definitely treats. They need stress-free eating in an environment where they aren’t pressured, but they need to be exposed to many different foods and cuisines. It really is possible to serve them that is tasty, delicious and healthy all at the same time!