There’s so much pressure on parents to get it right every time, especially when it comes to food and nutrition. What kids eat – or won’t eat – often ends up creating stress at mealtime. Thankfully, the research shows that being a picky eater is not only completely normal, but also something that most kids outgrow. In the spirit of making parents’ lives just a little bit easier, we’ve rounded up helpful tips to make healthy food introductions with kids one less thing to stress about.
For starters, it can be helpful to remember that introducing healthy foods to kids won’t happen overnight. If your toddler won’t eat anything green, or your 8-year-old won’t go near tomatoes other than on pizza, keep serving different vegetables and fruits to broaden their palates over time. We’re partial to grapes, a super-sweet way to introduce a little one’s palate into the world of fresh produce. But, try not to push it if some foods go uneaten at first. A 2007 study found that repeated exposure to vegetables eventually led to about two-thirds of infants learning to like the foods they loathed. Texture can be a factor in whether kids like a food or not. Sometimes cooking a vegetable instead of serving it raw, or shredding it instead of serving larger pieces, can influence how it “tastes.” Spiralized zucchini, cauliflower rice, and other fun treatments can be more appealing for little eaters. As they get older, try other preparation methods.
Another way to excite kids about eating healthy is to introduce fresh fruits by way of creative dessert swaps. If the little ones are already keen on popsicles for an after-dinner treat, consider freezing a handful of fresh Holiday® grapes (when they’re in season, September through December) as a swap for the traditionally processed frozen treat. Or, for a more hands-on activity, make homemade popsicles with fresh fruit and homemade juice as the base. With super-sweet, juicy grapes in the mix, the little ones won’t miss the store bought treats one bit, and they’ll also have a new familiarity with fun ways to enjoy fruit.
Empowering kids in the kitchen is another way to establish and reinforce healthy food habits. When they lend a hand in the kitchen, they may be more likely to eat a healthy meal or snack, or try a new food altogether. Give them a chance to help with meal planning and prep, too. Let finicky eaters pick out what’s for meals once a week, even if it’s their all-white plate of pasta, chicken, and cheese. Round out the kids’ meal of choice with a healthy fruit for dessert, like super-sweet Holiday grapes, when they’re in season. Small shifts towards healthier sweets as dessert can gradually inspire more fresh, colorful, diversified plates and openness to trying new foods.
In a similar vein, Ellyn Satter, dietician and therapist, pioneered the “division of responsibility” approach to promote kids’ positive eating habits. According to Satter’s widely accepted methods, parents are in charge of deciding what gets served at meals and snacks, but kids are in charge of deciding what and how much they want to eat. This approach takes the anxiety and guilt out of mealtime, for a more joyful, healthy relationship with food. This “division of responsibility” can have a positive effect on kids’ eating habits now and into the future.
As a parent, sometimes it’s best to take the path of least resistance when it comes to food. Even though your toddler’s list of approved healthy foods can change without warning, keep the ones they like front and center for, so what they see is what they’ll want to eat. Our pick for a go-to, always-on snack? Columbine Vineyards’ grapes, once they become available each July through December, since kids devour those sweet, juicy bites as much as adults do. Be sure to slice them in half or in quarters, for little mouths.
Last but not least, let’s not forget the secret parenting hack that is sneaking in nutrition to favorite dishes. Mash black beans into brownies, or mix shredded carrots and beets into burgers. For pasta night, serve cauliflower rice in a hearty sauce, or upgrade the breakfast smoothies with a blend of spinach and kale. Consider buying a spiralizer to make vegetables into fun, easier to eat shapes. This approach won’t always work, but it does add a little extra nutrition – and an added layer of fun kids crave.
Introducing kids to foods that nourish their bodies and minds is no easy feat, and parents play an important role in inspiring these healthy habits when it comes to nutrition. As daunting as that may sound – parenting is challenging enough! – it’s important to remember the process only gets easier as kids mature and expand their palates. Enjoy the journey, and with a little patience, soon enough they’ll be asking for their favorite vegetable dish, served just the way they like it.