My friends lament their kids’ refusal to eat anything green, anything healthy, anything that doesn’t come in a package emblazoned with a cartoon character.
I nod in solidarity. But, in truth, I am struggling in a different way. My toddler is a pretty good eater, but I’m not. I rarely eat fruits and vegetables. I just plain don’t like them and lack the willpower to choke them down.
For now, my daughter doesn’t notice that my plate is far less colorful than hers. But soon, she will. And that has me worried. How long will my daughter keep doing as I say but not as I do?
I called Julia Turner, a registered and licensed dietitian who specializes in helping families with nutritional challenges due to special needs, allergies, and sensitivities. She was optimistic about my chances of overcoming my food problems, even though I’ve been veggie-free for most of my thirty-nine years.
She said it’s important to model good eating habits in front of my child. But, I don’t have to transform into a health nut overnight.
“Kids model and imitate their parents,” she told me. “When you take a bite and say, ‘Mmmmmm,’ they really buy into it.”
She suggested I tackle my own bad eating habits using some of the same strategies moms and dads use to get their picky kiddos to eat right.
1. Give it time
An offensive-looking or -smelling food doesn’t make it to the first string after just one bite. Parents often have to introduce a new food eight times before their child will eat it willingly. For children with special needs, it could take twice as long. “It’s a process, and you have to be patient,” Turner says.
2. Dress up veggies
A little butter on broccoli—an especially strong-tasting food—might make it more palatable. Butter may not be the healthiest fat—olive oil is better—but the trade-off is worth it. You can also sprinkle on parmesan cheese or drizzle with cheese sauce. A little salt and pepper also works wonders, as do other spices, such as cinnamon on a sweet potato.
3. Try a smoothie
Turner is a fan of breakfast smoothies. Start with some cow’s milk or soy milk. Add frozen berries, a little agave nectar, and a banana. Then, a handful of parsley, kale, or fresh spinach. Really!
4. Sneak in produce
Some parents bristle at the idea of sneaking healthy food into baked goods and sauces. They feel like they’re deceiving their kids and giving them permission to forego whole fruits and vegetables. Turner believes in boosting nutrition whenever possible. Pureed cauliflower works great in light-colored sauces. Pureed carrots and shredded zucchini can be blended into pancake and muffin batter.
5. Don’t make food a battle
When you get into a power struggle over food, your kid will win, says Turner, a mother of two. A constant internal struggle over food isn’t healthy either. Aim for a balanced diet, and don’t beat yourself up over slipups.
6. Choose the freshest produce you can afford
Turner favors organic, locally-grown produce. It looks better, tastes better, and may be more nutritious. When that’s not available, check out the freezer aisle for organic produce. She considers canned produce a last resort, but says it’s okay in moderation.
7. Take up gardening
It’s fun for kids and adults. Once you’ve gone to the trouble to grow your own food, your child may be more interested in eating it. And you may be, too.
8. Make shopping fun
Kids like to be involved in food shopping. Avoid the junk food aisles and instead focus on finding new foods to try in the fresh and frozen produce aisles. Picky adults tend to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible. Make time to linger.
9. Hit the cookbooks
By trying different recipes, you may be able to find ways to enjoy foods that otherwise make you wince. I discovered crepes, which are easy and fun to make. I’m not crazy about the spinach filling, but I figure I can stand it if I eat it wrapped in a yummy crepe.
10. Eat as a family
This is the number one strategy any pediatrician shares when a parent asks about raising a healthy eater. That generally means everyone eating the same food, if not in the same amounts. For a picky mom, this isn’t as difficult as it sounds, Turner says. I only need to take “the tiniest little bite” of squash or peaches, she says.
Okay, just a bite. I guess I can do that. At my age, I don’t expect to develop a love of eggplant or bok choy. I also don’t see myself ordering fresh fruit for dessert when cake is on the menu. But I can make some changes with a goal of giving my daughter a healthy start with her eating habits. Says Turner, “If you want her to enjoy a wider range of foods, you want to enjoy a wide range of foods, too.”