For as long as I can remember, I've been surrounded by children. I've grown up learning how to change diapers, resolve conflicts, problem solve, encourage, teaching kids how to walk, helping my mom with potty training littles - the works. I don't have children of my own, but I think I can say I've got some mama cred (like street cred, but for mama's). I may not know what its like to be woken up 55 million times a night for months on end, well except that was the first 6 months of Bandit's life, that dog needed out to pee 4+ times a night. But I have watched kids overnight for a week at a time, and I know what it's like to get very little sleep and just feel so concerned for that little life in your hands.
I also know how important proper nutrition is for our kids AND how hard it is to encourage a picky eater to eat their veggies. In the last week, I've had a child start crying because I asked her to try green beans. Actual tears. Carrots - meltdown. But I have also seen the effects first hand of parents who make a conscious effort to practice what they preach - kids mimic what you do. That same child that cried over green beans, will drink copious amounts of my very vegetable heavy green smoothies, but ONLY if I'm drinking it. Egg bakes, beef fajita bakes with cauliflower rice - she will eat it all. If I'm eating it. Kids want to be like you. The person they look up to, and when you practice what you preach, they take notice.
The biggest thing a parent or caregiver can do, is eat the healthy foods too. In fact, stop making separate meals. All these processed foods marketed to children are not doing you any favours. Real food is delicious, and can be made simply for busy mama's (and daddy's). I promise. A big problem with the processed foods, especially at such a young age is we start to program our children's taste buds to only like these foods - high in sugar, carbohydrates, preservatives, and chemicals literally designed to make you want it over and over again. And these habits and taste preferences, follow us into adulthood. I get it, when you have a screaming, hungry, crying child - you may just cave and give them what they want. And sometimes, thats totally fine. But try to keep it from becoming a habit.
Here are a few tips on getting your kids to eat healthier foods, and get over their veggie fears:
1. Practice what you preach - eat the healthy foods, every day, in front of your children. You are their whole world, and I promise - they want to be just like you. So practice healthy eating and they will want to as well.
2. Make them a part of the process. When you are making meals, let them help you prepare them and let them be part of the decision process. A favourite for me is to get the kids to help me make a smoothie, and then we all drink it. Make a bit of a mess, get a bunch of options out and let them add their ingredients to the blender. You are empowering them with choices, but giving them the tools to pick the highest nutrient foods possible.
3. Variety - a common thing for snack around here is a plate of a mixed bag of tricks. I often will put a plate together with fruit, maybe some cheese, some crackers with peanut butter, some carrots and hummus, and maybe a homemade backed good. You can do individual plates for each child, OR practice it family style and let them pick from a big plate of food. It's fun, they get choices, and most of the time will pick a little bit of everything that way. It's a fun way to get them to try new things.
4. Here's a big one - let your kids get hungry. Just like you shouldn't be constantly eating and snacking (aim for every 3-4 hours), your kids shouldn't either. If they are loading up on foods all day, they aren't going to be as willing to try new foods at dinner. When I first heard this trick, I was a little upset and then I realized : you aren't starving your kid, you are letting their natural hunger queues come out. If your child just ate a full snack or meal, and they want more food 5 minutes later, chances are they aren't that hungry. If they don't want to eat some veggies or an apple, they aren't hungry. A question I asked myself when working on my binge eating disorder was, am I hungry enough to eat fish and broccoli? No. Okay, I am not hungry. Now obviously don't go to this big of an extreme, your kids are growing and they need food. But it is important to teach them to recognize their hunger queues and to recognize when they are full.
5. Put only one food group on the plate at a time. I would typically recommend this for kids over 2. When they are little and just exploring foods, put all the options on the plate (like above), and let them try a bit of everything. After 2, if they are super picky, give them their least favourite first. So the veggies first, or their protein source. Once they finish, give them the next part of the meal.
Pro-tip: NEVER force your child to eat something. If they try a few bites, and they say they don't like it. Okay, let's move on. If they have never tried a food, and tell you they don't like it, gently encourage they try it and show them how much you like it. In addition, never make your kid finish their dinner or guilt them by saying there is a starving kid in Africa (that's not helpful to your child or the starving child somewhere else, if you feel so bad about that donate some money). This just teaches your child to ignore the queues their body is giving them. And trust me, this will transfer into bad eating habits in adulthood.
When feeding kiddos, I like to focus on a meal template. It allows for tons of variation and experimentation while focusing on the most important nutrients. This meal template was designed by Melissa Hartwig for the Whole30 but it transfers nicely into food freedom and raising healthy kids.
As an adult, focus on eating three meals a day. If you are super active, add in a snack or another small meal. As a child, they are going to need a snack in there. Especially if they are napping. The picture above also recommends serving size, and can apply to your kids. Just remember their hand size, not yours. BIG DIFFERENCE.
6. If you have a child who likes to snack, that's fine - make sure they have healthy things to snack on. A great idea and option is to create a snack basket or drawer full of healthy foods within reach of their little hands. This basket isn't where you store the cookies and chocolate. Here is a list of great options for both pantry and the fridge:
Fridge: yogurts, apple slices, berries, baby carrots and grab and go hummus or guacamole cups, boiled eggs, cheese cubes or slices (real, no Kraft).
Pantry: Sea Snax, RxBar Kids, Kind bars, Lara bars, Made Good granola bars, pre-packed fruit and nut bags, packaged fruit and veg purees (I even love these), nut butter packets, crackers, etc.
Have the healthy stuff in reach, so that they can choose from that. In addition, get them their own reusable cup or bottle so they can have access to fresh water all day long.
A note on picky eaters: The best way to prevent a picky eater, is to start when they are babies. A nutrient-dense, weaning diet, which includes a diverse range of foods, tastes and textures, is your best defence. If your child only refuses a handful of foods, that's totally normal, just put a small amount on their plate when you are serving it to the rest of the family, and see if they change their reaction to it overtime. However, pickiness can actually be a sign of nutritional deficiencies like zinc. Another cause of pickiness is fruit juice - it can actually take away a child's appetite. Not going to lie, its also full of sugar and totally not necessary. Opt for water instead. Finally, severe pickiness, in which a child will only eat a handful of foods, especially carbohydrate heavy foods is a sign of gut dysbiosis. When you know, you can tackle the issue head on.
Let's dive into transitioning a child's diet. If you have a picky eater at home, or you want to change your families habits start small. This is key. You can't go from eating McDonalds and fast food every day, to green smoothies the next. So here are a few simple swaps to get you started:
Fast food hamburgers > homemade burgers with high quality, meat
Margarines and spreads > grass fed butter or ghee
Commercial dairy products > whole raw milk, homemade yogurt and kefir
Refined salt > himalayan pink salt or sea salt
Carb heavy dinners > swap for a serving of vegetables
Bottled sauces > homemade sauces (BBQ sauce, ketchup, salad dressings, etc)
vegetable oil > coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil
Fruit juice > water
Guess what? You can't change your habits overnight, so don't expect to change a picky eater or create healthy habits overnight. It takes at least 21 days, and most studies are actually saying it takes more like 66 days. So stick to it, and add a new habit each week. Maybe one week, you can swap fruit juice for water. The next week, swap one fast food meal for a meal prepped at home. You can recreate your kids fave fast food meal at home with simple changes: homemade burger, or homemade chicken fingers, with baked roasted potato wedges you season at home. Add some green vegetables like green beans, celery, cucumbers and you are set.
To help you out, here is my FAVE chicken finger recipe:
1lb chicken tenderloins or breasts, sliced into long, 1″ thick strips
1⁄2 cup all purpose flour or all purpose gluten free flour
3⁄4 cup panko bread crumbs or gluten free bread crumbs
3⁄4 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons avocado oil
The How To: Preheat the oven to 400. Cut your chicken breasts into long strips with a sharp knife. In a shallow bowl, set aside the flour, . In a separate bowl, mix together the bread crumbs, salt, black pepper and shredded coconut. In another bowl, whisk the eggs until well blended. Toss the chicken strips in the flour, and then dip to coat in the egg mixture. Next toss and cover in the coconut mixture. Continue doing this until all chicken is covered. Heat the avocado oil in a large skillet, and then sear the chicken strips until lightly browned. About 3 minutes each side. Next, place the chicken fingers onto a oiled baking sheet and bake in the oven for about 10 minutes until they are cooked through.
Serve with baked sweet potato fries and a side salad. For kiddos a side of green beans or some celery and carrots would be delish.
I'll be updating this post throughout the next few months to share more tips, tricks and research to help you raise healthy little eaters. For now, try implementing some small changes and see what happens.