Updated by Ashley Crowe in February 3, 2022
You're gathered together at the dinner table for your family meal. Everyone’s hungry and ready to eat, but the moment you place a plate in front of your child you're met with full-fledged refusal. Scrunched up faces, definitive yells of “no no no!”, desperate whining, and maybe even some tears.
Because to quote Disgust from Inside Out, their food was not “brightly colored or shaped like a dinosaur.” Really hit the nail on the head with that one, Disney!
In order to stop the negativity and spare yourself a headache (or an all-out battle over broccoli), it’s tempting to switch their meal to something you know they'll eat.
French fries anyone? It's a potato — that's vegetable enough right?
That solution may work every once in a while, but overall children are encouraged to have between one to two cups of fruit and one to three cups of vegetables per day (depending on age and other factors).
So what can you do about your fussy eater? Is there a way to get them eating healthier without making entirely separate meals or enduring an endless back and forth?
It’s totally possible! Here's our list of some quick and simple tips to get your kids into healthier eating habits.
Start healthy eating habits young
Try incorporating vegetables and fruits at an early age. Pouches and small, bite-sized pieces work great when they’re just getting started on solids. Then increase the amounts and variety as they grow.
Some families and daycares use the “no thank you bite” for toddler and preschooler meal times. This gives your child the opportunity to try new things at lunch and dinner. They take one bite, and if they don't like it they simply say “no thank you.” This encourages trying new things without the pressure. But they still get the opportunity to experience new flavors.
Take a look at your own plate
What's on the menu for mom and dad? Is it different from your child’s plate? Kids are master imitators, so if you're eating and enjoying your food, it's not long before a small hand is headed your way for a taste. The trick — don’t push these foods onto your kids. They can be stubborn once they refuse and then they are less likely to try it.
Instead, take advantage of their natural desire to copy and put some healthy options on your own plate. And no — this doesn't mean loading up on lima beans even though you can't stand them. Just choose what you already like. Big fan of spinach? Then make enough to share and spread the veggie love.
Let them help in the kitchen
In the rush of daily life, it's easier to just do things for our kids. It saves time, spares a mess, and is more efficient. But letting them help whenever possible builds their skills and interests. And cooking and eating healthier is no different.
When the opportunity allows, invite them into the kitchen. Let them chop vegetables for a stir fry or add the berries to the blender for a smoothie. By including them in the food prep process in an age-appropriate way, they may be more likely to eat something new.
Bonus life hack — let them help with the clean up too! You'd be surprised how eager kids can be when armed with a paper towel.
Mix it up
If steamed or sauteed veggies are a no-go in your home, how about roasted? Or grilled? Sometimes preparing the same food differently can result in a different response.
That zucchini that was gross with a capital G before might be more exciting with some grill marks to match their hot dog. Cucumber slices may be more appetizing when cut into a star shape. And everything’s better on a stick! Invite your kids to help you make fun fruit or veggie kabobs.
Bring on the color
When preparing meals, use color to your advantage. Try new ingredients and create a rainbow of colors on their plate.
Everyone is more likely to eat something that looks nice. Our eyes are naturally drawn to vibrant colors and food is no exception. A bright plate may be just the thing your child needs to get them eating those veggies.
Find a balance
Don't try cutting out snacks and sweet treats completely. Those yummy goodies are fine for occasional treats, and many snacks may even be healthy (yogurt is a favorite here). These can work well in a balanced diet, but keep their favorite fruit and vegetable choices around at all times.
When they always have access to healthy choices, that becomes the norm. And when they’re the norm, eating them becomes a habit instead of a battle. Then those goodies become one-offs while the healthy stuff is the routine.
Hide the healthier choices
This is definitely the sneakiest of suggestions and not necessarily the most direct way to change their palate (since they don’t realize they’re eating it), so we suggest trying our other tips first. BUT when faced with a total picky eater or part-time investigator always questioning what's in front of them, you may just want to try hiding the healthy stuff.
Try masking veggies in a smoothie (or popsicle) by mixing them with sweet fruits like berries or peaches. Or serve baked veggie ‘fries’ or ‘nuggets’. Vegetable chips are also a popular choice. You can even bake pre-made purees into muffins or mix them into spaghetti sauce. Then relax knowing your child is enjoying some cleverly hidden veggies.
Stay the course
No matter how you decide to encourage healthier eating, keep at it. Consistency is key. If the goal is to get your kiddo eating more fruits and vegetables, keep offering them a variety with plenty of opportunities to try them. It can take many attempts before healthy options become a favorite, but it's worth the trouble in the long run.
Children are amazing people watchers, always imitating the world around them. In order to get them to do anything, start with what they see. Remember, they are more likely to copy you and your choices — so let them see you making healthy ones.
Pay attention to what you pick up in the store, order in restaurants, and eat at home. And don't feel like you have to cut out the snacks and goodies for yourself or your child. Instead, make them occasional, special treats everyone gets to enjoy.
And above all else, be patient, with both your kid and yourself. It takes time to figure out their tastes and preferences. Celebrate the small wins (such as when your child finally tries that new fruit they refused before — woohoo!) and don't sweat the little losses.
Your patient persistence with their meals will have long-lasting results. They probably aren't going to fall in love with every single healthy option you present. And yes, goodies may still trump fruit any day, but as you go they'll develop their favorites and they’ll get the nutrition they need.
It’s fun to watch their palate change and expand as they get bigger. And soon, what used to result in an all-out tantrum might end up with big smiles all around.
What are your child’s favorite fruits and veggies, and how do they like them prepared? Share in the comments so we can all give it a try!