In the News: Getting Kids to Eat Healthy Not as Easy (or Hard) as It Looks


By: , SparkPeople Blogger

At my house, every person who came to the table—child or adult, resident or guest—got the no thank-you helping.

When a new food came your way at the table, you had two options. You could take a serving or say "no, thank you." The latter response didn’t exclude you from the broccoli/mashed sweet potatoes/brown rice. Nope. Saying "no, thank you," meant you got a small spoonful of the declined food on the edge of your plate.

You were obligated to take one bite. After that, you could choose to say "No, thank you," again and leave the remaining food on your plate. (You could even spit it out in your napkin, which my little sister frequently did!) Or, if you liked it, you could add a new food to your repertoire. No fuss, no pressure, no arguments.

No thank-you helpings made me a fan of broccoli (steamed and dipped in vinegar that first time) and asparagus. They also helped me learn I don't like deer meat or lima beans.

This past weekend, NYT health columnist Tara Parker-Pope wrote about the "6 Food Mistakes Parents Make." Her colleague Martha Rose Shulman offers a kid-friendly recipes (with not a box of mac-n-cheese or deep-fried chicken nugget in sight). And TPP also has an interview with TV's most popular cook, Rachael Ray, who's an advocate for childhood nutrition and teaching kids to cook. Read all three.

Among the mistakes parents make: Kicking kids out of the kitchen and dieting in front of children.

Sure, there are sharp knives, hot burners and heavy pans, but the benefits of bonding over cooking and learning how to make a nutritious meal far outweigh those risks. My friends whose mothers kept the kitchen door closed now struggle to cook for their fledgling families. Those who grew up in homes like my own--where moms and grampas gave us a stool, handed us an apron and put us to work—are quite comfortable in the kitchen as grown-ups.

Kids are sponges. So if your daughter sees you drinking a chocolate meal replacement shake for dinner, she'll think that "chocolate milkshakes" are acceptable meals. If you skip breakfast or push your veggies to the side of the plate, she'll think that's OK.

Another interesting tidbit from the story: " A Rutgers study of parent and child food preferences found that preschoolers tended to like or reject the same fruits and vegetables their parents liked or didn’t like. And other research has shown girls are more likely to be picky eaters if their mothers don’t like vegetables."

The solution, Parker-Pope says, isn't hiding broccoli in a brownie or making allowing kids to eat only chicken tenders and applesauce until they graduate high school. As with any aspect of healthy living, there is no instant cure, no magic answer. Expect guess-and-test, trial-and-error. With some patience, perseverance, and yes, a bit of cheese sauce and ranch dressing, kids can learn to like (even love) vegetables.

Research has shown that it can take 10 tries to get kids to eat a new food. (It took at least that many for me to learn to like green peppers.)

Don't give up, and keep those no thank-you helpings coming! (Though forcing foods on kids isn't recommended, according to the article.)

How do you (or did you) get your kids to eat their vegetables? What worked for you?

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  • 36
    I don't think about having children because the whole eating thing gives me anxiety.

    I have a stepdaughter whom I adore so much and it kills me to see her very overweight and refuse to eat any and all healthy foods. Granted she is special ed and thinks differently, but it affects my viewpoint on whether or not I want children.

    This article, however, helps break down the process of helping children eat healthier... Doesn't seem as difficult as it seems from the outside!

    I love it, gonna keep it. YOU ARE A LIFESAVER! - 9/18/2008   1:10:29 PM
  • 35
    This is great! My son will not even eat chicken nuggets, fries or some of the other things mentioned as 'kid-friendly' in these articles. Thankfully I don't have alot of these bad habits, however I agree that including our kids in the prepping and cooking process is absolutely educational and key to cultivating a healthy mindset around food and eating.
    I admit, I very often make one or two attempts at offering a new food to my child with no success and then throw in the towel. In fact I think I've burned the towel! The NYT article's suggestions are definitely worth implementing and have given me new resolve to get that TV off and get my child into the kitchen with me.

    Thank you! - 9/18/2008   1:06:48 PM
  • 34
    As a young child 3-8 i was expected to eat everything on my plate, and most nights this was a fight... I can't even tell you now what things I would fight about the only things I don't like now, are lima beans and baked beans... But my point is this, parents don't always know the correct portion size. My father told me when I was 8 years old that i had to eat everything on my plate or i couldn't be a softball player... he never had to tell me again... that was something i wanted so badly that i often overstuffed myself... i did go on to play college softball, but now that i'm not working out in the same mannor, i gained 60 lbs and am just now getting portion sizes down... and i've also lost 15 lbs. I don't think children should be forced to eat everything on their plate... i do think they should have to try everything on their plate.... I have a cousin who at 19 eats chicken nuggets, baked potatoes, buns, and hamburgers, but not on buns, icecream and any other junk she can get her hands on, she hates cheese, her father hates cheese, she hates ketchup, her mother hates ketchup, the list could go on forever... all because she was never forced to try anything. - 9/18/2008   12:48:09 PM
  • 33
    My kids love to cook. One of the best times we had was staging an Iron Man competition between the two of them. We thought they would just cook dinner, but before we knew it, they were both yanking cookbooks off the shelves and planning appetizers AND desserts and trash-talking each other (all in good fun!) We gave them each a budget to buy the ingredients at the grocery store, and they learned valuable lessons in pricing foods and arranging cooking times so the mashed potatoes don't get done before the meatloaf. - 9/18/2008   12:34:56 PM
  • 32
    I love all the comments and I am going to use the no thank you suggestion to help my son eat a more variety of foods. - 9/18/2008   12:29:20 PM
  • 31
    My son used to eat just about anything got put in front of him and his favorite food was broccoli. Things changed when he turned 4. It was then he decided nothing green was good so he stopped eating them except green peas. The older he gets (now he's 6) the pickier he becomes. Now, not only he doesn't like vegetables, he also begins to say "no" to fruits as well. I don't know what else I can do other than keeping serving them until one day he changes his mind, and so I hope. - 9/18/2008   12:19:35 PM
    I have a picky-eater in my house, as well... but amazingly, she likes most junk food! It is so true that they change by example... We're still working on meats and main dishes, but once I started incorporating more fruits and veggies into my diet (though they were in the house and a part of meals before), she suddenly took up eating salads and healthier things! DD is a teenager now, and was once a concern to the doctor for underweight... I find that it's true... actions speak louder than words... especially with teenagers... talking about it can turn them off even more, but staying silent (unless words are necessary) and just setting the good example works the best! Too bad I didn't learn that when they were younger! - 9/18/2008   12:18:42 PM
  • 29
    Both in my home growing up and now that I have kids, eating veggies or any other food was not a problem, if it was put on the table you were expected to eat it, if you did not care for a particular food, you simply took a small portion. My kids from an early age ate everything put before them, before they had the power to look and say yuk! They saw parents, grandparents and uncles eating something so they never thought it might taste bad. Now they are 16 and 20 yrs old and have a complete list of veggies and other good foods that they enjoy. - 9/18/2008   12:02:35 PM
    I guess I'm lucky that our girls were never afraid to try new foods, and they actually loved (still love) vegetables!! Our youngest daughter was the only kindergarten kid I knew who wanted fresh mushrooms as an after school snack. LOL. I never had to trick them or force them to try new food. - 9/18/2008   11:54:22 AM
  • ELLYN68
    When I was a child I was forced to eat whatever was for dinner. I remember sitting at the table, glaring at liver, knowing that I wouldn't eat it & also knowing that I wouldn't get dessert. I promised myself that I wouldn't do that to my children. Well, I don't serve liver. But, my promise to my self has backfired, my 5 year old has a verrrrry limited diet. I am going to start that "no thank you " portion. Wish me luck! ;-) - 9/18/2008   11:51:05 AM
  • 26
    We have an 8-year old girl who drives us nuts when it comes to dinner! You could make the same meal 6 times in a month, and the first time she would hate it, the second and third she would love it, the fourth she would hate it, the fifth she would love it and the sixth she would hate it again. She will also eat certain foods with her mother and step-father, but not with us, and vice versa.
    We’ve tried pretty much every approach to try to get her to try new foods. We’ve tried the no-thank you approach even. We like to use the general rule my parents used…you don’t have to eat all of it, you don’t have to like it, you don’t even have to swallow it, but you have to try it. The problem with her is she decides the instant she sees or hears about something whether she likes it or not. When it comes time to try just a bite, she works herself up into such a tizzy over it and has her mind so set that she is going to hate it, that when she finally tries it, she would never like it.

    We tried getting her to eat shrimp this weekend…we grilled it up and cut her just a small bite off of one of them. She got so worked up she was almost in tears and was all but hyper-ventilating while looking at it. She would hold it in front of her, breathing heavy, “prepping herself” to try it. It took her fifteen minutes of doing this before her father finally gave up and told her she did not have to try it. She has been doing this for a long time because she has learned we will eventually get frustrated and just tell her to forget it.
    (The funny thing about this is the day before at the grocery store, she told us she’s learned that she doesn’t know if she likes something until she tries it, so she better try it).

    I’ve finally got her to eat tomatoes by cooking them down and putting them in pasta sauce…she had been picking them out and letting them get cold, and then she didn’t like them (I don’t like cold tomatoes either). She figured out, after we told her she couldn’t pick them out, that she likes hot, cooked tomatoes. Now she insists we cook tomatoes to put in spaghetti sauce.

    We have now decided that we will put a little of everything on her plate, no questions asked, no requests asked. The understanding will be she can eat what she wants, and if she only wants to eat, for example, her tater tots because she decided we cooked the burger different, that’s fine. But there will be no special treat or snack later if she doesn’t at least try everything on her plate. Hopefully, this will get her to decide that she should at least try everything, and maybe dinners will become less stressful. - 9/18/2008   11:32:26 AM
  • 25
    My mother encouraged us to help cook. We made our own lunches for school most days. We were more likely to eat it if we made it.
    Though we were sometimes forced to eat what was on our plates. I went 3 days with the same meal for dinner once. I refused to eat it. I slept at the table the first night. If I dont like it I am NOT going to eat it. Even now. If all I had to do was try it I might have eaten more of it. Back then I did not care if we could afford to waste the food or not. In my mind you should not have bought something that you knew I was not going to eat.
    When I cooked for my family as a teenager I would let my much younger sisters watch or help. Kids can peel potatoes and carrots with a pealer. Then as they get older introduce more responsibility. Saves some time for you and they learn. Both of the youngest can cook now and leared from my mistakes.
    - 9/18/2008   11:19:29 AM
    I add veges to dishes my family loves, especially meat dishes. I put string beans in the center of meatloaf, I add any veges I can find to my meatsauce for spaghetti. I also cook some veges creamed style with milk and cheese such as cauliflour and broccoli. - 9/18/2008   11:12:40 AM
    When my children were young, I gave them small servings of everything. What they liked they could ask for seconds. They were expected to finish their food if they wanted dessert. (I have seen people who pile everyone's plate high with food and act like their feelings are hurt if you don't eat every bit of the food which is waaaaay tooooo much.) - 9/18/2008   10:51:55 AM
  • 22
    When my kids were infants, I made my own yogurt and used it as a base for baby food. Whatever was leftover from a meal - broccoli, apples, peas, chicken, etc. was put in a blender, then mixed with yogurt. My children ate spinach yogurt, meat loaf yogurt, peach cobbler yogurt, etc. Every time I would offer that same food, I would reduce the yogurt slightly and increase the 'real' food until they were eating the food on its own. They grew up enjoying a wide variety of foods and were in great demand as dinner guests (especially when other mothers were introducing new items to their menus). - 9/18/2008   10:39:37 AM
  • 21
    I have always told my boys - you have to try new don't have to like them, but you have to try. Otherwise, how will you ever know? I will even encourage them to try something again several days/weeks later - you never know when your tastes will change! They love steamed broccoli, zucchini, scallops and all sorts of foods other kids turn up their noses at. My parents never made us try new foods, so I am just now learning to eat veggies. My husband almost fell out of his chair the other day when he saw me eating an egg white omelet with fresh spinach, mushrooms, onions and turkey sausage! To think of all the years I've missed out on this veggie goodness - - - I don't want my kids to miss out. - 9/18/2008   10:38:50 AM
  • 20
    I used to put veggies in everything figuring something would sneak through! To this day, my kids say I scarred them for life by putting peas in their mac and cheese - but they said nothing of the onions, peppers and tomatoes! In their 20's both kids eat veggies if not as often as I'd like, at least they know they should. And when I went to dinner at my son's house, he made the most delicious grilled veggies on the BBQ! - 9/18/2008   10:33:05 AM
  • 19
    Thank god we live in a society where we get to reject nutritious food. While others barely have anything to eat. With that said, I learned from my m-i-l who was a vegetarian and a vegan at different points in her life and would just put just a little bit on everyones plate of whatever she was currently experimenting with. I do the same to my kids with vegetables, and today they eat spinach, asparagus, broccoli, salad, and celery and carrots. - 9/18/2008   10:27:08 AM
  • 18
    This is the same attitude we have adopted in our home and all 4 of our children love all the fruits and veggies. One other thing that we also do is that twice a month the kids take over the kitchen and cook a meal. They all know how to make it healthy and nutritious, so they usually read through all my cookbooks, sometimes even looking online for recipes. It gives them some control over what they normally have no control over. My kids are also old enough to be able to cook without constant supervision. I have found that they are now willing and able to experiment with many foods, even to the point where they have tasted calamari, 3 out of 4 liked it..... Anyway, I totally agree with this type of food "learning", it has worked very well for our family! - 9/18/2008   10:21:57 AM
  • 17
    I don't have kids yet, but this article and some of the comments flashed me back to when I was a kid, and we had to call Veal Parmesan "pizza meat" so my little brother would eat it. He's 31 now. Hee. - 9/18/2008   10:20:50 AM
  • 16
    That first link was a GREAT article! Thanks for posting it!

    My mom always made home-cooked meals (except when Dad grilled, or we had a treat of Barbecue from my uncle's store. They weren't always fancy, but even as a little girl I LOVED to watch and help. I had a whole "play kitchen" that was my favorite pastime. One of the things I was looking forward to when I got my first apartment was having a kitchen of MY OWN.

    We weren't given a choice at home. Mom made what she made and you either ate it, or you went without. We didn't get to substitute cereal or snacks. I HATED peas as a kid, but Mom always served them with corn, so I would just ask for more corn. And I would drink LOTS of milk to fill my belly on days when she cooked liver and onions -- which I still don't care for.

    Sometimes I think parents today want to be too "nice" to kids. At our house, what the parents said was the LAW. We didn't get to argue or beg. But my parents weren't MEAN by any means. We just knew EXACTLY where the boundaries were and what we could and couldn't get away with.

    I didn't even know they MADE pancakes with chocolate chips in them until I was in high school. We didn't get fast food much at all -- McD's was a treat, not a place we ate 3 times a week. Other than M&Ms (which my Mom was crazy for) we didn't really have junk food in the house either. And of course when we hesitated before eating something we heard that old "Children in Africa are starving and would be thrilled to have liver and onions. You need to appreciate your place in the world!" speech, which effectively "guilted" us into eating stuff we weren't crazy about. - 9/18/2008   9:59:22 AM
  • 15
    I was the first born child so I did not know any better. I ate everything - eggplant, beets, brussel sprouts and plain greek yogurt. I still eat most things I grew up with - I don't like nuts, lima beans or store bought cookies. My children were a little harder to deal with. They did help me in the kitchen but I am not a very good cook and my husband used to be very picky, especially with veggies. He only like canned green beans! One of my sons avoids veggies as much as he can (except broccoli and cauliflower) and the other eats what he considers normal veggies (corn, broccoli, sweet potatoes). As for my 9yr old granddaughter, her mom doesn't like milk so it took a long time to get her to drink it regularly. At my house we drink organic 1% milk from Costco and she loves that. Also, anytime she says she doesn't want something we are making for dinner I tell her she wasn't going to get any anyway because I want it all for myself. Usually she will ask for a taste and then decide it is great. Or else, I don't put any on her plate and then Gampa and I make a big deal about how good it tastes and she asks for some. Oh yes, and for my husband, I gradually introduced different veggies and spices to him over the last 34 yrs and he now eats most anything! He ate greek yogurt on a sweet potato the other day.

    Mary - 9/18/2008   9:58:12 AM
    I love this article...there is so much truth behind it. Before I started dating my husband I could not even look at a tomato, cheese, broccoli, or yogurt. When we started dating I didn't want to seem as though I was a picky eater so I just ate what he did...Amazingly, 27 years later, these foods are the staple of my diet. I do believe we can learn to like/love new foods if we keep trying. GREAT article!
    - 9/18/2008   9:54:44 AM
  • 13
    I like the "no thank you" servings idea! My son is 3 months old (today, actually), and although I was raised with a fairly healthy attitude towards food (lots of veggies, learned to cook at a very young age, never was forced to clear my plate, etc.), I am always on the look-out for new parenting ideas!

    I have a friend with an mildly autistic son. She ended up taking him to "food therapy" sessions because he had become so obsessively picky about his food that he wasn't eating much at all. One technique that I thought was a great idea was to help the kid come up with lots of different things that he can do with the food, if he's totally focused on "I can't eat that" - like using a pepperoni piece for an eyepatch, or making a gravy moat out of the mashed potatoes. His little brother is totally into the whole thing too, including coming up with bizarre food combinations (ketchup on broccoli, etc.), then reminding his older brother "You can't know you don't like it till you've had it 10 times!" - 9/18/2008   9:31:32 AM
  • 12
    My 7-year-old daughter loves vegetables. It's meat that she can do without. She will eat a whole plate of peas as long as she does not have to eat steak. - 9/18/2008   9:20:30 AM
  • 11
    Our son's eat fruits and vegetables just fine, never had an issue with them at all. They tend to eat whatever is placed before them, and if they hate something they are free to leave it uneaten. - 9/18/2008   9:06:26 AM
  • 10
    This article makes me feel better about how I'm handling the eating situation in my house...

    MOST of the time, I let my 4yr old daughter in the kitchen with me to help cook. She loves to do that and she asks me tons of questions as we're preparing. It is a perfect, no pressure, non-lecturing way to educate her on how to make healthy meals. She will just think it's the "normal" way of eating, which makes my heart feel good. Now that she is four, she has her favorites and not-so-favorite foods, but we rarely make a special dinner for her. She eats what we eat and is required to take just one bite of everything (we do make her swallow that bite though). I can't tell you how many foods she disliked in the beginning that she now loves because we've given it to her time and time again. My son (15 months) also now eats what we eat. We have to make some modifications for him, but overall, I have to make just one dinner each night.

    Because of all the questions my daughter asks while we're preparing and eating, she now regularly tells me that shots keep her healthy and so does drinking water and eating broccoli :)

    Thanks for this article -- it's wonderful reassurance. - 9/18/2008   9:05:23 AM
  • 9
    My son (2yrs) tends to like things for a month maybe two and half and then all of a sudden one day he doesn't like it anymore. Trying to keep up with the phases of foods he likes one day and doesn't the next, is tough but I keep trying and I keep introducing foods to him and offering him foods on my plate and he'll eat it sometime, or try and to my surprise even like it. It's a process but we are trying to work it out! - 9/18/2008   8:53:46 AM
  • 8
    My kids were expected to eat what we (Mom and Dad) ate. I did let up some when DH stopped eating vegies!!!! I taught my kids some nutrition and the importance of the vitamins in each food - the purpose of a balanced, varied diet. At one point, we even made a chart for each child and checked off - to get a balance in the carbs, proteins, etc. That helped a lot cuz I gave the kids choices of things and let them choose what foods (out of what was available to them) they could eat to get the proper balance. It put some of the choices in their hands and seemed to work. I have been pleased to see that my adult children make wise food choices most of the time. I take the credit for giving them the information so they can. They are also observing (from a distance as they live their own adult lives) the choices I am making as a SparkPerson and how vital nutrition and exercise are playing in getting me back to top shape! I love it!! - 9/18/2008   8:51:37 AM
  • 7
    I am avery picky eater - my mother forced me to eat alot of foods and I don't like most of them. My son... I will not do that! If he wants to try it, he will. So far (he is not even two) he has liked everything except broccolli. LOVES mushrooms (bleck!). We let him try right from our own plates if he wants - and usually he does - or he can eat his "kid's" meal. - 9/18/2008   8:46:45 AM
  • 6
    We never ate vegetables growing up. I went to college not really knowing much about them, haha! Luckily, my fiance and his mother are great cooks, so they've opened up my world to veggies :-) - 9/18/2008   8:44:19 AM
  • 5
    Wish my parents did that no-thankyou helping, lol's. being forced to sit there for however long it takes for you to eat that food does not make you a big fan of many foods.... - 9/18/2008   8:40:53 AM
  • 4
    I definitely agree that parents have a lot to do with what kids like. In my home we didn't even see most vegetables. We had corn, beans and potatoes. We never had broccoli (which is probably my favorite).

    I love exploring new vegetables and think I would have as a kid as well. - 9/18/2008   8:39:43 AM
  • LILLIAN364
    My kids love the produce section of the grocery. They love fruits and vegetables. I eat lots of produce so they do. We had fights over broccoli at restaurants when they were little because portions of vegetables at restaurants are so small. We've had the kids insist on eating kale at a restaurant. (Used for decoration). The wait staff brought us out a large plate of kale for the kids to enjoy. My kids treat salad as a treat.

    Kids loves produce. It's naturally sweet. - 9/18/2008   8:37:34 AM
  • 2
    When we were very young, my brother and I had to sit at the table until our plates were clean, no ifs and or buts about it. On liver and brussel sprout night, we were at that table until 9 pm and I learned how to swallow a brussel sprout whole with a huge gulp of iced tea. My brother fed the dog, hid the liver in a plant, you name it he tried it and got caught every time. When we were a little older, my mother and step father divorced and we were given a small portion on our plates if it was something we didn't like. My new step father told us that was so we could have one bite of it because tastes change and we may find we end up liking it. I had a much easier time with that way of doing things. My thought is-there were 3 vegetables that we didn't like, why concentrate on those 3 when there are so many others we LOVED? To this day I won't eat liver or brussel sprouts (my other two veggies were lima beans and green peas and I won't eat either of those alone as a side dish either-40 years later) - 9/18/2008   8:25:28 AM
    At the Whitfield home we are blessed to be able to buy groceries and provide for our grandsons. Raising two boys is an adventure; however, when it comes to eating their vegetables, it's understood; you don't eat what's being served for dinner, then you may be denying yourself a well-balanced meal...and you'll be hungry by the end of the day. We usually serve food that they like -- but it's important they know that food is a gift and a necessity. We can't afford to waste it. - 9/18/2008   8:06:54 AM

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