Picky Kids: Clever Ways to Win The Food Battle
By Kat Warner
Certified Nutrition Coach
If you are a parent, or have ever had to consistently feed kids on a regular basis, you know that what was their favorite food yesterday could be out of the question for today. To make matters more challenging, add more kids! I have 4 of my own, ranging from teen to kindergartener. Each complete with their own opinions and taste buds, it feels like what they like is changing all the time! Trying to create a meal plan that covers the bases of balanced nutrition, tastes good, AND pleases a crowd is no small task. Keep reading to learn more about how I navigate the murky waters of feeding multiple kids in a healthy and delicious way!
For starters, there is no “one-size-fits-all” formula to guarantee your kids will love everything you make. They are complex, growing humans who are constantly changing. Also, different families enjoy different cuisines, and may have specific dietary needs/preferences that others don’t. For this reason, my tips won’t include recipes, but rather, tools for winning the war in the food battle.
As a nutrition coach, my kids know way too much about the benefits of healthy eating and how to create a balanced meal! They know they need to eat protein and a veggie before dessert (grains rarely seem to be an issue with kids-some of mine practically live off carbs!). However, despite all my good intentions, planning and efforts to make everything delicious, I still find myself bargaining with at least one kid regularly. I’m not a “clean your plate” person, as I strongly believe each person should be led by their individual hunger and fullness cues. That said, I do prioritize whole foods over junk, so if they are hungry, that comes first.
Here are a handful of my core rules when prepping and feeding my family:
1. Let Them Choose/Give Them Options
From the time my firstborn was 2, we began the ritual of picking out fruits and veggies together at the market. Returning home, I would pop him up on the counter and he would help me wash them and taste pieces as I would cut and store. I remember him eating tomatoes and peppers as if they were apples, and it was so exciting to see how he experienced the new flavors and textures, and discovered new things he liked. I found instantly that the more say he had in what we bought and cooked, the more likely he would be to eat it. This is really the biggest tip to winning I can give, because it’s all about control. You are giving them the power to choose, and they love that. As a parent, you can create the boundaries. For instance, tell them they can pick out any two vegetables for dinner, but one has to be green. They are still in the driver’s seat, but you are creating the parameters. Another way this plays out in my house is in cooking method. I may serve green beans, and offer them raw or steamed (usually two prefer raw/two steamed). I don’t care- I just want them to eat the beans! The same goes for peas-only two prefer frozen and two prefer hot with butter. To each his own, but at least they have an option and maintain control.
2. Offer a Variety
As busy parents, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut with the same meals rotating week after week. We get tired, and feel lackluster about creating new options that, frankly, may be rejected and wasted! So, we play it safe with the same 2-3 options that we know our kids mostly like.
Offering a variety may feel like too much work, but it doesn’t mean you have to throw out your whole routine and start something new! In fact, when I offer a new option, I do it alongside the things I already know they like. The catch? I ask that everyone tries a bite of the new thing before everything else. Sometimes, I bribe them with dessert to get them to take that first bite, and then they end up enjoying the rest when they realize it is actually good. Other times, they try it, don’t like it, and that’s okay. Try again a month or two later. That’s how their constantly changing taste buds actually play in our favor!
3. Timing is Everything
Going along with offering new food, remember that timing is everything. Catching kids when they are hungry is one of the best ways to ensure they will try that new food, or just eat the healthier option when it’s right in front of them. It’s pure science: food tastes better when we are hungry!
As adults, we often lose touch with our hunger and fullness cues in a fast-paced, media-loaded culture. But kids have an innate and incredible sense of their bodies’ needs and limits. Offering whole foods like fruits and vegetables when they are genuinely hungry is an easy way to play this to your advantage. I like to cut up fresh vegetables, olive, dips, etc. and place them out about an hour before dinner as I prep my meal, and they snack on those as their hunger creeps in. Veggies tend to be the hardest with kids, which is why I strategize this way!
4. Play With Color
We all can appreciate some excellent culinary presentation. The textures, colors and shapes of foods put together can really become an art form. Kids are drawn to color, especially the brightest ones that you find in fresh fruits and vegetables. They love shapes and textures, too, which can be particularly helpful in those earlier childhood years, when you can play and explore together. So use the excuse and be a kid again! Not only is a colorful plate fun to look at, but the micronutrient content is generally much higher than a plate full of muted colors (like starches and proteins). And when you choose to cook your veggies, make sure you are only letting them cook until their color is vibrant and bold, not past that point where the color changes to a dull tone. That is how you ensure the nutrients are still readily available and haven’t been cooked out of the food.
5. Try New Things Together
Sometimes we tend to think inside the box and don’t explore new ways to eat and prepare foods. But getting a little brave and creative could unlock tons of options for you as you feed your family. Maybe you just assume kids don’t like a certain food, so you don’t even try. Or maybe, the first two kids never showed interest, so you never thought to offer it to your third. You never know what someone will like out of the blue. Maybe it’s the form you are preparing in, and if that changed, you would have a winner. Experiment with things like beets, chickpeas, salmon, nuts, quinoa, mushrooms, or even pesto and olives. You never know what some kids will like!
6. Use a Kid’s Cookbook
I love this strategy because it can be used for children at any age. Finding a cookbook that matches your family’s food preferences and has vivid pictures can be an easy way to help us parents build a meal plan that kids will definitely try, if not love! Again, it’s all about giving them the control. Extra bonus: you can build a shopping list together and they can check off each item as you shop, AND you can incorporate math and reading by getting them in the kitchen and letting them help you measure and cook!
7. Sneak It In
Sometimes, despite all my attempts, we just enter phases where no one seems to want much of anything healthy, I lack creativity, or it’s just a busier season of life when meals need to be simple to survive. In these circumstances, I rely on sneaking in unsuspecting health foods into our daily meals. Some of my go-to's are:
· Adding vegetable/fruit purees, chia or ground flax to baked muffins and breads
· Amping up homemade pancakes with cottage cheese or ricotta for extra protein
· Throwing in greens like spinach and kale to smoothies
· Simmering red sauce loaded with veggies, garlic, onions, carrots, and even red peppers before pureeing it for pizza or pasta and meatballs
· Making desserts with healthy fats like these avocado brownies
As long as the texture and flavor is basically the same, I find it works well to get the job done! Even little switches, like swapping out protein pasta or green pasta for regular durum wheat pasta makes a big difference in their fiber and protein intake, as well as overall gut health.
8. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
At the end of the day, raising kids and feeding them well is all about nourishing their minds and bodies. It’s a messy, ever-changing, fun and challenging job. That being said, don’t sweat the small stuff. Even if they go through phases where they only eat cheese and bread, or insist on starving if they can’t eat chicken nuggets every day, just remember:
1. It's normal
2. It's a phase.
One day you will turn around and realize that their tastes have changed and adapted, and if we keep giving them opportunities to choose whole foods, they will be more likely to build those into their lifestyle as healthy, thriving adults when they get out into the world.