Children can be a notoriously tough crowd when it comes to eating a healthier diet. With food challenges and aversions across taste, texture, shape, even colour (green veg anyone?), the sight of a lonely pea in a bolognese sauce can be enough to send them into a spin.
The dietary habits learnt while young will serve as the foundations of food choice for years to come, with a child’s food environment shaping food preferences and aversions. Children can become picky eaters for numerous reasons - some may be more sensitive towards smell, textures and taste. Others may model off parents or caregivers fussy habits. Others may have a relatively inflexible expectation of the foods they like and want to eat, based off what’s continuously served in their house and available to them. Others may develop pickiness when rewards and bribes become intertwined with food (i.e. “eat this, and you can eat that”).
The goal here is to help facilitate, wherever possible, an openness and willingness to eat a wide variety of foods, while keeping the food environment as stress-free as possible. But this does come with challenges. Here are our some ideas and tips for getting children to eat a healthier diet:
Be mindful of language choice around food
Children perceive the world differently to adults. The word ‘healthy’ doesn’t often mean much - many children have great energy, sleep well and may not have fortunately experienced concepts of poor health to fully grasp some motives behind eating a healthier diet.
However, through other word associations we can help get our points across regarding eating a healthily diet, in a more meaningful and understanding way to them. For example, instead of saying ‘eat your broccoli as it’s healthy’, consider ‘eat your broccoli because it will make you run fast like you favourite All Black or superhero *insert name here*!" Aim to make associations that they will understand.
Get them involved
Wherever you can, try and get your wee ones involved in age-appropriate activities in the kitchen. If a child has had a role in food preparation they may become more invested in the meal - and then open to eating it. For example, get them mashing together cooked potatoes and carrots for mash at dinner, counting out eggs for baking, or helping make smoothies for the family for breakfast.
Outside of the kitchen, gardening is also a great way to grow an interest in food - if possible, get a few seeds in a pot (in the garden/windowsill) and make it a routine to water and check in together. Once your bounty is ready to be harvest, get them to pick it and then include it in dinner. Both gardening and cooking are educational experiences, that will build skills over time.
Try different preparation techniques
Don’t write off a type of food because of one or two bad experiences. Research has shown it can take ten to fifteen attempts to get a child to accept new foods. They might not like carrots boiled; but may love them mashed, in soups, roasted or fried - so play around. Simply encourage your kids to keep tasting and trying – and one day you may find they like it.
Make mealtimes go beyond just eating
Creating a routine of sitting down as a family to eat a home-cooked meal not only sets a great example for kids about the importance of healthy food, but it can bring a family together for important time to connect and socialise without the distractions of computers, phones or televisions.
Through routine this can help enhance appetite, through setting the expectation of it being a meal time - a time where we eat. This also provides an opportunity for you to ‘lead by example’. Kids will watch your own cues at the table and how you interact with food - if you turn your face up to veggies, they’re more likely to monkey-see-monkey-do.
Scale back on drinks and snacks
If you find your child is continuously picky at dinner, make sure they’re not overdoing the snacks or drinks in the lead up. If they come to a main meal having snacked a fair bit before, they’ll naturally not be hungry - and with that can come increased pickiness! Some foods and drinks (like milk) can be particularly caloric-rich, which may otherwise satisfy their appetite. If a child is hungry, they’ll like be more more receptive to trying something new or eat what’s in front of them.
Avoid using food as bribes or reward
It’s tough, as the tried-and-tested "if you don’t eat your vegetables you won’t get any dessert” can work surprisingly well. However, when dessert is held up as the “good stuff'“ to get them eating brussel sprouts, an association can form that they have to do some ‘unpleasant’ to get a reward.
Aim to keep rewards and bribes out of food. Instead work on role modelling (i.e. eating veggies yourself), using positive language around food, getting them involved in the food prep, trying different cooking techniques, and always have veggies visually present on the plate. The last one is particularly key - if veggies are absent for some meals, a child may start to think they’re not an ‘always’ part of a meal - and therefore they can be a sometimes part of their diet.
This blog was written especially for our friends at Westpac NZ, who we’re excited to be assisting with their workplace wellbeing this year. It’s thrilling to see a company go the extra mile for their staff!