Getting Your Kids To Be Great Eaters

Getting kids to try new, healthy foods can feel like an impossible goal for most parents. Kids (understandably) have very little autonomy in their lives, so they will attempt to control whatever they can. Food tends to be one of the easiest for them. Couple that with the challenges we parents face having our kids marketed to incessantly by food companies -- not to mention the shelves of our supermarkets lined with all sorts of kid-focused processed food -- and it’s no wonder a simple carrot, leaf of lettuce, or fresh tomato holds such little appeal for many children.

Parents have to be vigilant to help our kids eat right, but that shouldn’t be experienced by either parent or child as a burden. No matter how old your kids are, you can get them excited about trying new things, even get it to be their idea, not yours.

Lead by example.

Eating a nutritious and varied diet is something we parents should abide by first and foremost. When kids consistently see their parents trying new foods, it creates a positive impression on them. Eating together as a family as much as possible is also very important. This can be difficult given parents’ busy schedules, but even dinner or breakfast a few times a week matters. Countless studies have shown that families who eat together have better overall nutrition than families who do not.

Be patient.

One of the easiest ways to reinforce your child’s resistance to trying new foods is to press the issue with them. Kids need time to grow accustomed to new flavors, especially babies, so don’t give up if your first few attempts offering something new are unsuccessful. Arm twisting can push kids away from foods they might otherwise enjoy if only given the space to discover it for themselves.

How does your garden grow?

We recently built an edible garden with the kids in our backyard. From a nutritional standpoint, it is one of the single greatest things I have ever done for my family. My son and daughter eagerly tend to it with us, planting seeds, pulling weeds and watering just about everything. Inviting them to take part in the whole process of food from seed to plate, allows little ones to experience ownership over what they eat. My kids get so excited when it comes time to pick and help me come up with ideas for what we’ll make with our bounty. They don’t think twice about trying something new if they grew it....because it truly is theirs. It requires no cajoling, bribing or sneaking on my part.

What if I don’t have room for a garden?

If you live in an apartment or don’t have space for a garden, that’s ok. Get a window box. All you need is a spot with adequate sunlight, some good soil and seeds. Even if your kids take part in growing just one or two things, it will give them an insight into food that most kids rarely, if ever, get these days. Or, go to your local Farmers’ Market, talk with your kids about where the food comes from and get to know your farmers. Let your kids help you pick out what you can cook together. You'll find that making kids active participants in what they eat gets them excited about trying new things.

Freedom of choice.

If you want your child to try a new, healthy food, give him a choice between two things he’s never had before. The element of choice makes it easier, since to your child, it becomes about what he wants, not what you want him to try. Those small steps can add up to big leaps if you work choice regularly into your mealtime repertoire.

If at first you don’t succeed....

If it takes a few, or even numerous, tries to introduce a new healthy food to your child, don’t worry. Persistence and patience will win out. "No food fights” is a mantra I try and live by since kids will frequently meet insistence to try new things with equal amounts resistance. You’d be surprised that not making a big deal out of food will work to everyone's advantage down the road. Furthermore, recent studies confirm that kids self-regulate their own diets, meaning they will ultimately seek out the foods their bodies need at their next meal if not at the current one --- and that’s good news for us all.

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Hi, I’m Catherine. Mama of three. A Kentucky girl living in California. Here’s what I know: all kids can be great eaters and mealtime must be easy. My passion is creating simple, healthy recipes that can be enjoyed by the whole family.

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27 comments

  • Erin Quereau

    I think this is great! I have a pretty good eater but there are days where he will surprise me ( both good and bad) I have become a better eater b/c I want him to see me trying foods I thought I didn't like. But with a little roasting or spice or added to a dish I find I actually DO like!
    Thanks!!

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  • Katie Newell

    After years of repeated exposure, my 3 1/2 year old finally asks for raw broccoli! It will happen! Great post, Catherine! These are they same values I share in my book and on my site! Bravo!

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  • Jellyjello

    i too think this is great! its the most incredible feeling seeing my 13month eat and enjoy these wonderful weelicious recipes! its changed our entire family, we have a small outside space but we have filled it with herbs and tomatoes and she gets soo excited picking them and adding them in her food! i never though in a million years my daughter (or myself or husband for that matter) would be asking for more beets!! truly inspirational and my family thanks you for all u do!! going to share this post with all my friends! =)

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  • Stephanie

    Yes thanks! I can't even tell you how many times I gave my boys tomatoes and they refused to eat them and finally yesterday the did.
    I wish my apartment had sunlight because we can't even grow things in a window box. Someday! Until then it is all about the farmer's market for us.

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  • Trisha

    It's also important to not be afraid to try new things. Don't think \"oh, he won't like it.\" or \"that's not \"kid food.\" because you never know what your child will like. People are amazed our kids have LOVED things like avocado and hummus since age 1 and now at 5 and 2, they love salmon! keep persistent and don't give in to offering chicken fingers every night just so your child will eat \"something.\" he will not starve. it is a battle that can be won, and one easily won by starting at a very early age.

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    • Kristen

      So true! From working with families with picky eaters for years now, I know that Kids pick up on things so easily. If you serve a new food with the attitude \"they'll hate this\", then they will! I recommend serving your kids foods that you enjoy eating and serving them with as neutral an attitude as possible. The more matter-of-fact you are about what you are serving, the less pressured they will feel to try something. And, paradoxically, the more likely they will be to try (and like) it.
      Kristen Yarker, MSc, dietitian
      facebook.com/VitaminKNutritionConsulting

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  • Catherine

    Thank you for your amazing responses! I know as a parent how amazing it can be when kids WANT to eat foods that are good for them. As good as it makes me feel watching them, I see how empowered they feel making the choices on their own. Bravo to anyone who even tries! And just remember that a failure with a recipe one day can be a success the next!

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  • Kari

    thanks for this article, im super blessed with a great eater, but maybe its because like you said ive always made all his food and he loves \"stealing\" mommies food. his favorite food is raw plain tomatoes and apples, he could eat them all day every day. he used to hate raw broccoli but now at 18 months he eats it off my plate when he sees i didnt offer it to him on his plate :)

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  • Silvia

    I have two kids. The first, an awesome eater...just like Kari said. I thought \"It must be me!\" and took all the credit. Number two kiddo comes along, only a year later, with a complete distaste for ALL food. But the 'try, try again' is finally paying off. He's now 4, and I can rotate most fruit, frozen peas, most cheeses, most nuts, milk, whole grains, greek yogurt and raisins. This took 4 years, and I can finally go to sleep feeling much less guilt for a malnurtured child. They are who they are, I just figured out it's my job to figure it out :-)

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    • Carmen

      I hear you, Mama! Thank you for that!!

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  • Michelle

    I'd love to plant a vegetable garden for all the reasons stated. ! I have a yard, but only get a few hours of mid-day sun in one small spot. As most veggies like sun, I'm at a loss as to what to plant. Suggestions anyone?

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  • Yudith

    Agree with all of your points on your article. Our 12-month old daughter is an awesome eater. I have always made all of her solid; and I basically started pureeing our dinner and serve that to her around 8-months or so (I excluded items such as dairy, nuts, honey etc). Prior to that, she had pureed organic fruits and veggies. Now she has a mouth full of teeth and have whatever we have on the table. She also loves eating whatever we are eating as well, she loves all types of ethnic food that are normally considered 'non-kids-friendly'. She actually prefers steamed carrots/sweet potatoes/peaches over her puffs/gold fish!

    My husband and I also started eating dinner w/ her between 4:30-5PM when she was starting to be able to sit up in her high chair, which is SUPER early, I know. But it really helped her to understand that eating is a social activity; and it nurtures that family togetherness.

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  • Julie P.

    Kudos to all the moms who read this site and others and really make an effort to make sure their kids are fed a wonderful variety of nutritional & fun foods. I put so much love and energy into what I make for my son that it sometimes disheartening when he does not want to try it. I've learned to let it go and not take it personally. I've also found what he loves one day may hold no interest the next and just to go with it. I don't want him to be stressed about eating, it is supposed to be enjoyable. In addition if he wants a nontraditional breakfast like grilled cheese than so be it as long as he's eating something good for him. It is a constant learning experience and I enjoy the ride.

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  • Danielle Ballard

    Great post, thank you! My toddler loves fruits and vegetables but is picky about everything else, especially when it comes to eating meat. I wonder if you can offer some healthy vegetarian recipes, as the go to foods of pasta, grilled cheese, etc get so boring! Thanks!!!

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    • Sarah

      My child is also a fruit and veggie eater but does not like meat unless its ham (I'm guessing it's because it is so salty). I feel like he eats pasta and mixed veggies every night. Do you have any dishes that you can suggest to open up his world to new main courses?

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  • Deena

    Great article! I am a holistic nutrition counselor and often work with parents who struggle to get their children to eat healthy foods. I find that so many parents are learning about healthy foods themselves, so this is a really important effort. Having kids be a part of all of this from early on is wonderful way to get them interested. And we definitely can't underestimate the importance of parents eating great food too. Thank you for mentioning dinner as a family as well! This way children don't think their food is just for them... everyone eats! In this season, homemade ice pops and smoothies are also another wonderful way to share fresh food with kids.

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  • Crysta

    I do this with my children, I just think it's great that you wrote this and put it all in a nut shell to share with others. Keep up the great work! Maybe one day there will not be such a thing as \"Fast Food\". =)

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  • Julie

    I have one good eater, one picky eater. One thing that has helped with the picky eater is to try new foods as a family (even though it's usually not a new food to DH and me). My picky eater is more willing to try something when we all \"try\" it together.

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  • Lindey

    i share all these views and love how you've summed them up so nicely here :o) it really is amazing what actually sitting down together at a table can do to a toddler's dining experience. hopefully your message will find it's way to all the munch in front of the tv families who haven't put it together just yet.

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  • Heather

    Thanks so much for this post. I am one who tries, but tends to feel more failure than success. It's nice to remember that one, I'm not alone, and two, tomorrow is another day try try again. :)

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  • Jamie S.

    My daughter thinks ice cream is a food group but, when I roast a vegetable (could almost be any type) with some olive oil and salt she will devour it! Best trick in the book!

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  • Pistolette

    Great advice here. My situation is like Silvia's up there. My 3 year old daughter eats only 5 things (none of them healthy), while my 2 year old son will eat anything I put in front of him. My picky daughter loves to garden and cook with me, but somehow sees herself above tasting anything. If I press she screams \"it makes me sick!\" And so I keep trying new approaches. But even her preschool teachers agree, she is one of the pickiest they've ever seen.

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    • Wolfboat

      Omg! This sounds like my daughter! It is endlessly frustrating with an non-eater! My girl will only eat 5 things as well! I prepare healthy homecooked food that gets scowled at! I eat tons of fresh veggies and fruit while my husband and daughter stare at me with mean \" I hate that food\" faces! I have tried it all and nothing works. I just, well, give up!

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  • Kristen

    Great article. From years of working with families to transform their picky eaters into food-confident kids, I couldn't agree with you more!

    I'm also loving all the comments that folks are writing in. Especially the Moms who are talking about how they have 1 kid who eats almost anything and 1 kid who is picky. It's very true that food-confidence is related to kids' personalities. The secret to fostering food-confidence is choosing strategies that match your kids' personalities. Oh, and patience, lots of patience!
    Kristen
    Facebook.com/VitaminKNutritionConsulting

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  • Test

    hahahah

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  • Japananana

    Great article. I think the key to getting kids to try new foods is actually to unblock our assumptions about what \"kid food\" and \"adult food\" is. Up until a few months ago, I always ordered pasta off the kids' menu for my daughter, because I knew she would eat it for sure. Kids' menus are traps. It's much better to order what you would normally eat and get a small plate with a little bit of everything for your kid. It turns out she won't eat tons but she'll eat enough. I figure that it's not the amount that matters, it's what she is learning- and when she's experiencing a whole range of flavors, she is more likely to be open to trying new things.

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