How Do I Help My Picky Kids Pick Good Food?
"Eat your vegetables." It's something parents have been imploring their children to do since long before the U.S. Department of Agriculture created a Choose My Plate Guide or Michelle Obama urged kids to eat right as a part of her Let's Move campaign. Research has shown that establishing healthy eating habits in your kids makes them better eaters for life, but how do stressed-out parents get their chicken nugget-loving children on the right path?
Give them an early start, says Susan Oh, a dietitian. She’s also the mother of three children: William, 12; Henry, 10; and Mia, 8. Oh says one of the best ways to get your kids used to eating the rainbow of foods their bodies require is to introduce as much variety as possible—even before junior moves up to solids from baby food. “Exposure is key,” says Oh, who points to myriad studies that have found increased exposure to foods as an infant leads to a greater acceptance of solid foods as children grow. “You want to expose them to different flavors as early as possible. Expand their palettes. I think it makes a huge difference in them being picky eaters down the road.”
Oh speaks from experience. She says her oldest son, William, is a classic picky eater, a “meat, rice, pasta, and potatoes boy.”
He dislikes anything green and it drives me nuts, says Oh, who admits to not following her own advice when William was young. Still, she says, not all is lost if you get a late start exposing your kids to a variety of foods. Over the years, Oh has tried several strategies with William that have proved successful. She'll add vegetables to meals by spiking spaghetti with minced onions, carrots, zucchini, and garlic—"a type of Bolognese sauce jam-packed with more vegetables than traditional sauce, but you really can't tell there are vegetables in it." Over time, she's made the vegetable pieces larger and has found that William doesn't complain. When the kids were younger, she'd cut fruits and vegetables into fun shapes or skewer them on sticks, which made them more fun to eat. Dips, like hummus or ranch dressing, also helped make vegetables more appealing.
She also planted a vegetable garden with William and paid him to tend it. She says the garden gave her vegetable-adverse son a sense of ownership and made him curious to taste what he had grown. ("Surprisingly, he loved poblano peppers," she says.)
Oh says one of the most common miscues parents make is feeding kids separate meals. “That’s a really big mistake,” she says. “You basically become a short order cook. The kids get used to that pattern. Then they think, ‘I can get anything that I want. If I just want to eat buttered pasta every day, that’s what I’m going to ask for.’”
Parents should strive to set a good example by eating healthy, well-rounded meals themselves— what Oh calls modeling.