My food philosophy is simple: cook at home, eat real food, incorporate tons of veggies, and limit the processed stuff. It’s also about keeping things simple by making one healthy meal each night that everyone will eat. Easier said than done, right? Especially when feeding a toddler or a resistant-eater.
When I first shifted my focus to healthy eating I was overwhelmed by the idea of cooking multiple meals for each member of the family. How was I going to focus on eating real, healthy food and still serve a meal my husband and daughter would eat? The challenge seemed daunting.
Having a three year-old has given me plenty of opportunities to figure out what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to making adaptations so we can all enjoy one meal. Of course, things aren’t always perfect. We still have nights when she throws a fit about what’s on her plate and others when she hardly takes a bite of anything.
We persist, though, because the goal isn’t to raise a perfect eater. It’s to raise a healthy eater. To help you do the same (and hopefully to retain your sanity in the process), today I’m sharing tips and tricks for encouraging your child to eat real food.
Prepare for Success
1 | Visit the grocery store together
Shopping together allows your child to feel part of the process and voice preferences when it comes to ingredients. Allow your child to select his or her favorite type of pasta, or pick a fruit and vegetable to incorporate into meals during the week.
The last time we were at the store Elle insisted we buy purple cabbage (we’re deep into the purple and pink stage right now). That night she happily ate cabbage for dinner, something she never would have done in the past, because she had picked it out.
2 | Modify the recipe to include at least one preferred ingredient
Read through the recipe and decide if there are tweaks or adaptations you can make to better suit your child’s preferences. Swap in a favorite ingredient or remove a hated one to increase the likelihood your child will eat the meal.
3 | Invite your child to assist with meal prep
I realize that busy weeknights aren’t always the ideal time to involve your child in the kitchen, but when the opportunity presents itself do what you can to invite your child into the kitchen to help with measuring, dumping, and mixing. Weekends are a great time to get your child used to helping in the kitchen and to get a jump on weeknight meals.
4 | Offer a veggie appetizer
A hungry child is more likely to eat a good dinner than a child who has been snacking all afternoon. Of course, some children appreciate a little snack before dinner is ready, so take advantage of the opportunity by offering raw, chopped veggies as an “appetizer.” I often set aside a few raw veggies on a plate as I’m preparing dinner. I set the plate on the counter and if Elle wanders into the kitchen looking for food I offer her the plate, and she’s often able to hit her veggie quota before dinner even starts.
Cook with the End in Mind
5 | Add spices or other strong flavors last
Andrew and I love spicy food, but I realized quickly that Elle does not and that even a small amount of spice will render dinner inedible to her. These days I save the spice for the end of a recipe, after I’ve served her portion, or I leave out the spice altogether and pass the hot sauce, pepper, and red pepper flakes at the table.
6 | Pull portions aside before adding sauces or less-preferred ingredients
If your child prefers his or her food very plain, remember to pull his or her portion aside before adding sauces to the recipe. This works particularly well for stir-fries, curries, pasta sauces, and bowls.
This method also works well when adding a less-preferred ingredient. For example, I often add spinach or kale to soups and stews, but I know Elle is not a fan of “green things” in her food. I pull a portion aside for her prior to adding the greens, and make sure she has another veggie as an alternative.
The Main Event
7 | Deconstruct
For children who don’t like their food to touch (and there are a lot of them out there), deconstructing dinner can be a game changer. Deconstructing basically means taking the dinner apart and serving it separately on a plate. Nearly any meal can be deconstructed, so think creatively as you cook and plate. Most Real Food Whole Life recipes offer notes on deconstructing meals, too.
8| Sauce on the side
Another tip for kids who like their food plain, serve the sauce on the side and suggest he or she use it as a dip. I even count a teeny tiny taste of the sauce a win.
9 | Add at least one preferred option
If you think the recipe you’re preparing will be less than popular, consider adding one preferred option to your child’s plate. For example, if we’re having soup that I don’t think Elle will love I make her a whole wheat quesadilla to go on the side, or I’ll cook up some brown rice to go with a stir fry.
10 | Supplement with preferred veggies
Similarly, if the veggies included in your recipe are a no-go with your child, supplement with one or two she prefers. I keep sliced carrots, bell pepper, and snap peas (Elle’s favorite) on hand as a backup option for nights when she’s not wild about what’s going on for dinner.
11 | Everyone serves themselves
Sometimes the simple act of serving him or herself gives a child enough of a sense of control to try something new. Offer dinner family-style and allow your child to serve himself.
12 | A little of everything on the plate
Some parents have a “one-bite” rule at dinner. I have a “it has to be on your plate” rule. Trust me, this is hard enough some nights (cue tantrum over cooked kale on the plate). I’ve found that simply seeing a new food on her plate increases the likelihood that a child will try something new, and de-escalates the trauma of new foods.
Practice a Positive Mindset
13 | Language matters
Little ears pick up everything, including the way adults talk about food. Try not to tell your child “oh, you don't like this,” or “you’re such a picky eater.” Similarly, discourage your child from making similar statements. We have a rule that if Elle doesn’t like or want to eat something she can say “not for me today.” Trust me, some nights that’s all I hear.
Language is powerful, though, and changing “I don’t like this” to “maybe I’ll give this a try soon” goes a long way. Keep tabs on your own language about food, too. If you say you hate veggies or can’t stand broccoli chances are your kids will say the same.
14 | Set a good example
Perhaps this goes without saying, but model healthy eating behaviors for your child. Put a little something of everything on your plate. Tell them how much you enjoy eating healthy and how it makes you feel nourished and strong.
15 | Keep trying and stay positive
Feeding little people is not easy, particularly if you’re trying to avoid processed foods. Do your best to retain a sense of humor and stay positive. Some nights these tips and tricks will work, and some nights they may not. Your child may go through a phase where he eats nearly nothing or where she won't touch a vegetable. Healthy eating is a long game, so stick with it.
16 | Give yourself, and your child, grace
I think providing healthy meals is super important, but at the end of the day if you are getting dinner on the table then you are doing a great job. This is not about perfection, for yourself or your child. Do the best you can. Encourage your child to do the same.
For more kid-friendly adaptations, check out Real Food Whole Life recipes for specific tips and tricks within each recipe.
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