Getting kids to eat healthy food can sometimes feel like repeatedly banging your head against a brick wall . But there is hope. New research and guidelines offer some insight and tips. Here I present the best and latest as well as my personal takeaways from raising my two teenagers.
I thought I had it all figured out when my kids were toddlers. I would prepare elaborate and healthy meals and snacks, and my kids would explore and eat. Sure there were some rejections, but I was able to control the selection.
Then my kids went to school, and they started seeing other kids’ lunches. Even worse, the class parties exposed them to king sized cupcakes with two inches of frosting on top. Suddenly my food was “icky” and they wanted what their classmates were eating.
And so began the struggle to get them to eat healthy things and to reject junk food. It’s been many challenging years now, and while I haven’t won all the battles I’ve made real progress. And I’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are my top ten tips for helping your kids learn to choose healthy foods.
1. Don’t make it about weight.
Make it about a healthy, balanced lifestyle. I often tell my clients that there are plenty of thin, unhealthy people out there. Thin is not how health should be measured. Yes, in general being overweight is a red flag, but the latest research shows that waist-to-hip ratio is a better indicator for health risks. Someone could look overweight but have a healthy waist-to-hip ratio (.9 or less in men; .85 or less in women, according to the World Health Organization). Annual visits to the pediatrician will provide enough feedback on where kids fall statistically. I allow our doctor to speak to those statistics and keep the conversation in our home environment about the four pillars of health—nutrition, sleep, exercise, and stress management.
Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently published guidelines on how physicians and parents can prevent overweight OR underweight problems in childhood. Their main guidelines: Avoid “weight talk”; don’t tease; don’t encourage dieting. The guidelines were a response to a growing concern about teenagers’ use of unhealthy methods to lose weight.
2. Set a good example.
We know how young kids watch our every move and often imitate us. Although it’s not as obvious, kids continue to watch and absorb as they enter adolescence. If you want your kids to lead a healthy lifestyle, you have to walk the talk. Let them see how you choose healthy food options. Show them how you keep a regular schedule of exercise. Demonstrate good sleeping practices and stress management. If you struggle with any of the four pillars of health, get help. It’s one of the greatest examples you can set for your kids-- to recognize when to get assistance.
3. Eat together.
We’ve probably all seen this recommendation a million times, but it holds true. Try to eat meals together, especially dinner. It’s not just a good opportunity for your kids to see how you eat. It’s also a perfect time for reflection at the end of each day. Provide a healthy selection of food that always includes a vegetable, and let everybody choose their own portions.
You don’t need to make special rules about the “clean plate club” or “trying three bites of new food”. Let them see how you do it. Comment on the flavors and ingredients. Be present. Throughout history food has been a part of social, political, and spiritual practices. Make it an enjoyable experience where everyone can relax and express themselves. Over time your kids will start to correlate good healthy food with positive conversation.
4. Communicate the correlation between healthy behaviors and positive results (and the inverse).
This one has to be subtle. When one of my kids isn’t feeling great and doesn’t know why, I like to ask Socratic questions like “Could it be from something you ate?” Or, “Have you been getting enough sleep?” On the positive side, I like to comment, “Wow, you seemed so energetic in your game today- I bet it really helped to eat that healthy breakfast.”
My objective is to get them to think about their decisions and actions. The choices we make have consequences. We should value the positive results from our actions so that we can repeat them in the future. Do I sometimes get an eye roll from my efforts? Yes! But I’ve also seen multiple times now when one of my kids says something like, “I have a test today, so I’m going to drink some of your green juice so my head is clear.” Trust me, it works.
5. Get kids to participate.
During this pandemic, my teenage daughter has started making some dinner meals. At first, I just thought it was great to get extra help. But then I noticed how she was eating things that she previously turned her nose up at. It was because SHE made it. And she even expressed appreciation at how much time I spend making our meals. It was almost a religious moment for me.
When my kids were toddlers, I remember reading how I should have them help me prepare meals. I tried it, and it helped to some extent, but over time they just lost interest in meal prep. My recent lesson has been that it’s never too late to re-start. My son will be leaving for college in a couple years. I’m now planning to assign him periodic meal duty where he can make simple, healthy dishes that he’s interested in—tacos, hamburgers, grilled meats. It’s a win-win: he gets experience and I get a break from cooking.
Additionally, I recommend asking for input on meal selection. Each week before I go grocery shopping for the following week’s meals, I ask (at the dinner table), “What does everyone want for dinner next week?” I throw out healthy ideas and get feedback. Their participation in the process adds to their interest and satisfaction with our family meals.
6. Don’t buy it if you don’t want them to eat it.
In the words of Billie Eilish, DUH! This one seems obvious yet I often see it. Self-control and the ability to resist impulses are cognitive abilities that don’t fully develop until your kids enter their mid-twenties. If there are foods that you don’t want your kids to eat, communicate that clearly by not buying them. Otherwise, it’s a mixed message. In most kids’ minds, if you’ve purchased it, you’ve approved it for consumption. If there are times that certain foods are ok to eat for celebrations, etc., buy them in limited quantities so there’s few leftovers to tempt them.
7. Appeal to their rebellious side.
A study, “Harnessing Adolescent Values to Motivate Healthier Eating,” by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and the University of Texas framed the healthy eating message to a group of eighth graders as an exposé of manipulative food industry production and marketing practices. They described the practices as deceptive as well as explained accounts of companies engineering processed foods to maximize addictiveness and overconsumption.
Additionally, they outlined industry practices like disproportionately targeting poor people and very young children with ads of the unhealthiest foods. They framed healthy eating as a way to “stick it to the man”, and framed the avoidance of junk food as a way to rebel against their control.
It worked. The test subjects chose fewer junk food options as snacks and preferred water over sugary drinks. The researchers hope the study results inspire tactics, such as school campaigns, that could create a lasting social movement. But you can certainly initiate the same discussions at home.
8. Don’t over-accommodate.
A recent article in The Atlantic, titled “What Happened to American Childhood,” described a promising new treatment out of Yale University’s Child Study Center called SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions). The treatment targets childhood anxiety, including eating disorders. The creators argue that being overly accommodating in early stages of anxiety or problematic eating can result in bigger problems down the road.
Kids shouldn’t be sheltered from some difficulties and challenges, and that can include eating healthy food. If your kids don’t like the healthy dinner you’ve prepared, don’t be so quick to make them something else—or even more accommodating, to regularly prepare separate meals. Prepare a healthy meal, and let them work through their satisfaction or dissatisfaction on their own. My kids are old enough now that when they don’t like the dinner I’ve prepared, they know that they can either eat what we have or make something different on their own. I maintain a healthy selection of food, and I don't acquiesce to their complaints that there's "nothing good to eat". Reading that article makes me feel less guilty about it. I wish I had been even less accommodating in earlier years.
9. Rotate foods.
This is probably more important for younger kids. Kids do love repetition, but I found that the more I served the same foods, the less likely they were to try new foods. So I rotated many of the favorites with new, healthy dishes. After multiple exposures, some of the foods made it to the favorites list. Be prepared for lots of rejection but also occasional surprises of them asking for repeats of the “new” dish.
10. Visit farms and/or farmer’s markets.
With so many foods being packaged these days, many kids don’t know what food looks like before it’s prepared or processed. And furthermore, they don’t know where it came from. Farmers’ markets have become more fun in the past few years with sampling and even some vendors selling prepared foods. And there, amongst all the entertainment, are the farmers. With your kids alongside you, talk to them. Ask them about their crops and any challenges they’ve recently faced. The more information kids hear about the foods, the more invested they’ll be in eating them when you purchase and bring them home.
I like to compare getting kids to eat healthy food with the efforts of salmon swimming upstream. There are endless unhealthy temptations and situations working against you. As with many other parts of parenting, you have to remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can with the resources you’ve been given. I hope that you’ll find these tips helpful in your own efforts to ensure your kids’ health. Please feel free to use the comments section below to propose any questions or topics you’d like me to focus on in future posts.