Mother and son shopping for produce at a grocery store

Parents: Here’s how to get your picky eaters to try healthy foods

Getting kids to finish their vegetables can be a struggle many parents are familiar with, but teaching kids to make healthy choices doesn’t have to be a fight.

“We’re all busy with work and family. The last thing we want to do is have a battle at dinner time,” said Garen Schroder, RDN, LDN.

As a nutritionist who specializes in working with children and families at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois, Garen has some advice for parents who want their kids to eat more healthy foods at home.

Introduce new foods

As parents, we want to raise children to be independent, critical thinkers, so don’t limit them to just the kid’s menu. Let kids try new foods, but don’t force the issue.

“I always want meal time to be a positive experience,” Garen said. “It doesn’t help to put pressure on your kids to finish everything on their plate.”

Instead, give them the option to try something new without pressuring or reprimanding them, and don’t overact if they don’t try it or don’t like it right away.

Avoid using food as a reward

Choosing what to eat should be a practical, rather than an emotional choice.

Pressuring kids to finish their broccoli can make it feel even more like a chore, while bribing them with a cookie can make them seem even sweeter.

“I think it’s so important for parents to be matter of fact about food. It’s our job as adults to provide full nutrition. Don’t reward good behavior or eating vegetables with treats because it makes the sweets more desirable,” Garen said.

Occasional desserts are great, Garen said, but they don’t need to come with fanfare.

Get kids involved

A child’s interest in new foods can start at the grocery store. Ask them to choose one new item to try, then bring it home and ask them to help you prepare it.

“Cooking with kids definitely can be messy, but it shouldn’t be something that’s burdensome. It should be fun, and that’s something the holidays are all about,” Garen said.

Toy dinosaurs pretending to eat broccoli

Even children as young as 3 to 4 years old can help with basic washing and mixing.

“Kids are curious, and it’s like an adventure for them.”

Remember to be patient, as well.  Don’t be surprised or discouraged if your child doesn’t take to something right away.

“It’s not reasonable for us to expect kids to like something the first time,” Garen said.

Keep introducing new foods and foods prepared in new ways.

Offer fruits and veggies fresh, frozen or incorporated into another dish. Make them a fun shape. Or give kids two healthy options and let them choose what they’d like to eat.

Make time

Make dinner time an opportunity for the family to slow down and re-connect. Consider banning phones or television during meal time, and instead start a conversation with your kids about their day or what happened at school.

Holidays are a great opportunity to start a tradition of coming together over a meal.

“The holidays are about gratitude, sharing and community – and food plays a big part in celebrating those traditions,” Garen said. “But our fast- paced lifestyle over the holidays makes that difficult. Take the opportunity to slow down and enjoy a home cooked meal.”

Find more resources for raising health kids on the Healthy Kids U web page.

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Last Updated: April 22, 2022

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About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Diet & Exercise, Kids & Family