Surprising DOs and DON'Ts of Getting Your Kids to Eat Healthy

From bribing (“If you want to have dessert, you need to eat your broccoli”) to begging (“Just one bite of squash — please?!”), parents will do almost anything to get their kids to eat better. The best way to get your child to eat what you prepare and have them develop healthy eating habits, though, may be to stop trying so hard. Here are some surprisingly simple DOs and DON’Ts of helping kids learn to eat right and set up healthy habits for the rest of their lives.

DO: Try the Same Food Multiple Times

If you want your child to eat better, the key is not to force them, says child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter, RD, author of Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. She proposes that parents decide the what, when and where of feeding, and children decide how much and whether they want to eat it. Children often need to be offered a food 15 to 20 times before they like it. They may want to touch it, watch you eat it, lick it, even try it and spit it out. Vegetables can be especially challenging for some children, so it could pay off to be patient even if you fail the first four times.

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DON’T: Serve Only What Your Kid Already Likes

African girl in front of vegetable dish.

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Combine newer, less preferred foods with favorite foods, says Doris Fredericks, RD, cofounder of the Childhood Feeding Collaborative. But expect that your child may eat only one or two things, not everything you put on the plate. Fredericks acknowledges that it can be tiresome to prepare foods that your kid won’t eat, but adds that you shouldn’t give up. Your child may eat only bread at dinner, but in time they’ll come around and eat a variety of foods. The timing can vary from days to months, and if you’re worried about your kid’s diet, child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter advises asking their pediatrician about giving your child a multivitamin.

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DO: Prioritize Family Meals

A 2011 study by the University of Illinois showed that kids who eat meals with family members five or more times a week eat more fruits and veggies and are 25 percent less likely to develop nutritional health problems. And three or more family meals a week decreases the chances of developing eating disorders or becoming overweight. When your child watches you enjoying a variety of foods, it goes a long way toward encouraging them to try new dishes for themselves. Even if they claim they aren’t hungry, ask kids to sit at the table with you for a few minutes. You may have to make sacrifices to maintain family mealtimes as a priority, but the rewards are considerable.

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DON’T: Feed Your Child on the Move

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If you give your child something to eat or drink every time they ask for it, getting them to sit down for a real meal will be challenging at best. It’s fine to give your kid water anytime, but other than that, schedule times for breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack, dinner and a bedtime snack. Kids’ stomachs are small, so they need something in between meals to tide them over regardless. Child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter suggests reminding them that they just ate and that snack time will be here before long. Sit down for snacks, and put two or three foods on the table rather than just offering whatever you can grab on the run.

DO: Let Your Child Serve Herself

Instead of serving your child some of everything that’s on the table or just what you think they’ll like, use serving bowls and let them help themselves. "Even letting them pour milk out of a little pitcher makes a big difference," says nutritionist Doris Fredericks. "You can help guide them on appropriate child-size portions and affirm for them that if they’re still hungry, there will be more for them to eat," she says. But don’t ask them to clean their plate. Kids can’t be expected to know exactly how much they’ll need to feel satisfied, and asking them to eat everything on their plate just teaches them to ignore their own feelings of hunger and fullness.

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DON’T: Be a Short-Order Cook

According to a University of Tennessee study, 70 percent of mothers of 16-month-olds offered alternatives when their children didn’t eat what the moms thought was enough food at mealtimes. It’s tempting to offer a peanut butter sandwich or macaroni and cheese when a child refuses the other foods on the table. However, making a second meal for your kid isn’t doing either of you any favors. You’ll start to resent having to make separate meals, and giving in just encourages them to reject new foods. Instead, stand your ground. Hopefully your child can find something on the table to eat. If not, or not much, they can make up for it later in the day.

DO: Let Your Child Try Foods Before They Appear on the Table

Involve food in your child’s life before mealtimes: Ask your child to help you plant green beans in your backyard. Take them to the grocery store and have them select a fruit they’ve never tried before. Let them help you prepare meals. You can also incorporate foods into other kids’ activities, like reading, doing experiments or drawing, says nutritionist Doris Fredericks. For example, get a children’s book about gardening from the library. "Don’t make a big deal out of it, just read it," she says. "You might talk about red, yellow and orange tomatoes, and then the next week, introduce tomatoes as part of a meal."

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DON’T: Force Your Child to Try a Bite

Kids will naturally resist what is forced on them. And negotiating with your child just torments you both. Child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter says that kids will learn to eat foods because they learn to enjoy them, not because they have to choke them down. She adds that when children eat at her house, she tells them they're welcome to anything on the table, and if they don't find anything they like, it’s OK not to eat anything. If a child is comfortable coming to the table and able to pick and choose from what’s available, that child will broaden his repertoire and try more foods. If the child is anxious and miserable, he'll never learn to try anything.

DO: Serve "Forbidden" Foods From Time to Time

"There’s so much high-fat, high-sugar food in the world, it’s an impossible dream to think your child won’t be exposed to it," says child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter. And turning junk foods into forbidden foods means your child will just eat too much of them when given the chance. Instead, serve such foods often enough that they aren’t forbidden. For example, include chips with a lunchtime sandwich or occasionally offer cookies and milk as a sit-down snack (when sweets aren’t competing with other foods). Let your child have as much as they want so they can learn to pay attention to their own satiety cues.

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DON’T: Use Food as a Reward

Food should also never become a bargaining chip. According to nutritionist Doris Fredericks, when you tell a child they have to eat their carrots before they get to eat something else, it makes them think whatever you’re holding out on is better than whatever they have to eat to get it. Creating a positive learning environment at mealtimes is key, and ages two to six is the optimal time for kids to learn good eating habits that will last the rest of their lives. According to child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter, 80 to 90 percent of parents badger their children about eating. Unfortunately, it only backfires. When parents relax, kids become more adventurous.

DO: Make Eating Healthy a Fun Activity

Make eating healthy foods fun. Hold a tasting party during snack time. Maybe you put out a carrot with a top on it, says nutritionist Doris Fredericks, along with carrot coins, some cooked carrots and a dip with some raw carrot sticks. Or if it’s star fruit, show them the whole fruit, then cut it open with them and show them the shape it makes. Let them see the food, touch it, smell it before they taste it. If they don’t want to try it, that’s fine, too. The idea is just to let them explore and have fun.

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DON’T: Make Dessert Off-Limits

Unlike other foods, dessert should be limited to one portion at meals. Child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter says that dessert is easier to learn to like than veggies, so it has an unfair advantage, and kids will take the easy way out if you let them. She adds that if you do decide to have dessert, serve it along with the rest of the meal and let your child eat it whenever they want, whether it’s before, during or after everything else. That way, it’s just another part of the meal, not something special.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you have kids? Do you have trouble getting them to eat healthy? Have you tried any of the things on this list? Which tips hadn't you thought of? Which do you think you'll try? Are there other tips you would add to this list? Share your suggestions and questions in the comments below!

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