I get asked a lot how Mazen learned to eat healthy foods like kale salad, mussels and asparagus. Just as every child has a different temperament, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all formula to encourage healthy eating in kids. However, I can share my story in the hope that it might help your kids too! Here are ten things that Matt and I (and Thomas and our extended family) have done this year to encourage healthy eating.
- Waited patiently. Mazen was a very healthy eater from ages 6 months to about 2 years old. He gobbled down veggies as a baby and loved No Bull Burgers (made from lentils and cooked vegetables) and smoked salmon. Then, as most kids do, he went through a very picky phase. While I didn’t resort to completely bland kids foods, I stopped trying a lot of green things because I was tired of making them and wasting them (I could eat some leftovers but most of them got tossed on the floor!). My plan: wait it out. So years 2 and 3 were quite picky, although he did still have some healthy foods he’d eat like yogurt, broccoli with parmesan cheese, and spinach on pizza.
- Made him a sous chef. When he was finally old enough to follow simple instructions in the kitchen, we started to get him more involved. I have to give major props to Matt on this one because he does an awesome job cooking with Mazen. I am not as good with that at my house, but cooking with Matt was one of the big catalysts for getting Mazen to try new foods. He’d make something with Matt, like mushrooms on pizza, and then I would piggyback on that and repeat the same food that week. It worked because it was fresh in his mind. My goal with healthy eating has always been exposure, exposure, exposure, so just seeing it and talking about it was a win, even if he refused to try it. So whichever parent (or grandparent or role model) can get your child most excited about cooking, have them kick things off. We also get Mazen involved in the shopping and ask him what vegetables he’s in the mood for, and that helps too!
- Created a new foods chart. Mazen is very motivated by charts and lists, so we made a big chart on the fridge and talked it up. If he ate 10 new-to-him foods, we would take him to Toys R Us for a new toy (I got to set the budget and decide what counted as a new food). I have never seen my child so excited to eat cabbage, sardines, green beans, a beet, etc. He didn’t blink an eye. I also made a point of asking him how it tasted, and most of the time he said “good.”
- Emphasized family dinners. I know in an ideal world the family should enjoy a well-balanced dinner together every night, but that is unrealistic for us all the time. Mazen couldn’t wait past 5:30 to eat, and I never wanted to eat that early, so when he was younger I compromised and used to make him a separate early dinner. But around age 4, I decided he was old enough to wait a bit, so I started giving him a healthy-ish snack around 5 and serving dinner between 6 and 6:30 (I met in the middle on time since the grown-ups used to eat at 7:30 or so). He complained at first about sitting down with us and about the food I prepared, but after a few weeks of realizing I wasn’t bending, the whining minimized and then went away. He is definitely more likely to eat what we’re eating when we eat together. We don’t eat together every night because of having two households and activities, but we try to do it 3-4 nights a week.
- Asked his opinion. I ask Mazen most nights, “Which vegetable do you want tonight?” It’s the classic parent trick of switching the question from “Do you want a…” to “WHICH one do you want…” They get to decide and pick something they’re in the mood for. This doesn’t always work (if I’m preparing a family meal with limited choices, for example) but I ask whenever I can. For example, if I’m making quesadillas, I’ll ask which vegetable he wants inside (choices might be bell peppers, spinach, or kale).
- Kept my tone casual. If he’s not eating something on his plate, I remind him that he doesn’t have to eat anything he doesn’t want to, but that he can’t have any second helpings of his favorite thing on the plate (or any dessert if that’s an option) unless he eats the vegetables. I keep my tone casual and “no big deal” style. Generally, when he realizes this, he’ll eat the vegetable in order to get what he wants.
- Let him mix healthy with not-so-healthy. Since exposure, exposure, exposure was my goal, I have been flexible and open minded about Mazen’s wishes. Matt loves mayo and Mazen loves it too. If he wants to dip his nutritious kale salad in a glob of mayo, so be it. I am just happy he eats the kale! Because the more exposure he gets to it, the better it is in the long run.
- Talked about simple nutrition. Mazen has really been into Superheroes this year, and so he wants to be strong. We talk about how vegetables make you strong, and fruits, grains, and water give you energy to run fast. But sugar slows you down! Sugar isn’t bad, but it doesn’t really help the body grow or get stronger either. Sometimes if you eat too much sugar you have to focus on healthy foods for a while to build your body back up. Mazen has asked me questions about certain foods (“What does meat do?”) and I try to answer in my most simple language (“It’s made of protein and helps your muscles grow.”).
- Offered boring snacks. Now, before you think I am getting holier than thou, my child eats plenty of Goldfish and “kid snacks”. But when he’s in a snacky mood, I give him three options that I consider to be very healthy: almonds, carrots, yogurt, Mini Babybel cheese, or a popsicle (which is a frozen smoothie, so made with good stuff). If he rejects them all, then I know he’s not really that hungry and is just chasing after some junkier foods. He also knows that if he doesn’t eat his dinner his options for a bedtime snack are slim — carrots or almonds. If he’s really hungry, he will take one of those.
- Let him be a kid. When I was young, I ate pixie sticks and rock candy and ring pops and Skittles. I don’t want to deprive him of getting to experience these, so I relax a bit and let him enjoy some of these treats when the occasion suits. Nutrition is important, but so is being a kid! And life is all about balance, anyways.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, and might be doing something that goes against what the experts recommend. But knowing my own child’s temperament, we have made huge strides towards eating a diverse array of vegetables (and healthy foods in general like fish and brown rice) this year. No parent’s choices will be perfect, and Mazen doesn’t jump up and down for vegetables (except for spinach pizza!). But the difference in his attitude towards healthy food between ages three and a half and almost five is huge.
Please share your success stories, struggles and tips! We’re all here to help one another 🙂