Is your kid’s diet made up of approximately 95% CHICKEN NUGGETS AND CEREAL? It’s okay. This is a safe place. I’m guilty of occasionally allowing my 2-year-old to dip her apple and orange slices in barbecue sauce because frankly, it’s just not worth a throwdown and I’ll take what I can get.
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How can we as parents keep these tiny humans from winning the battle of wills? Can we ever hope to learn how to get kids to eat healthy?
The internet is full of super cute, kid-centric solutions. Cut vegetables into fun shapes. Use the food to create animals and adorable scenes that kids will love. Yay!
Unfortunately for my daughter, this mama doesn’t have the energy (or interest, if we’re being honest) to do all of that. Those are definitely great solutions. But I don’t want to create any complicated routines that I’ll have to keep up every time I want her to eat healthy. So these are the less adorable things that have worked for us on our journey to learn how to get kids to eat healthy:
The first and easiest way to raise healthy eaters is to stop stocking the pantry with junk food.
We eat what’s available to us, and if I have an option to eat Oreos every afternoon, guess what I’m eating? That’s not to say that my husband and I never buy little snacks for ourselves. We just put them somewhere that our daughter can’t see and request them. Then it feels like more of a treat to her when she has a froyo date with Daddy, drinks chocolate milk with Papa, or eats M&Ms (her movie theater staple) at the movies.
Substitute healthier versions of kids’ favorite snacks.
Buy grilled chicken nuggets instead of breaded. Try baked or “fruit chips” instead of fried. My sister-in-law made a delicious “ice cream” for her kids out of Greek yogurt and fruit, and they couldn’t get enough of it.
Enforce limits on sugary snacks by offering alternatives instead of a flat-out “no”.
After my daughter drinks a glass of chocolate milk, she almost always asks for more. Rather than just saying no, I tell her she can’t have any more chocolate milk, but I’ll gladly give her some regular milk. Offering an alternative has taken her crying and pleading out of the picture.
Add a dip
Dip takes the chances of my daughter eating nutritious foods waaay up. You can dip apples in peanut butter, carrots in ranch, celery in hummus, strawberries in yogurt, and grilled chicken in a little barbecue sauce. Dipping seems to make eating a little more interactive and interesting for her, and gives her some control over how much she dips. And what TODDLER doesn’t love having some control?
Both regular and diet soda create cravings for sweets. Healthy eating is a tough enough battle without the additional strain of fighting against sugar cravings.
Don’t use food as a reward
I know this one all too well. By associating certain foods with accomplishments, we help to attach emotion to food. This is probably why as an adult, I still feel the need to “treat” myself after an especially productive day.
I tell myself I deserve it. But the healthiest relationship to have with food is one in which we view food as fuel, not as happiness or comfort. That’s not to say MY DAUGHTER won’t create emotional attachments to her Nanna’s spaghetti or her Daddy’s Saturday morning eggs and sausage, but that we won’t use junk food to reward good behavior.
Lead by example with healthy eating.
My daughter is only two, so she wants to do everything I do. That’s why I make sure that she sees me eating a nutritious, balanced diet, and loudly (maybe a little annoyingly) proclaiming, “Mmmmm! Delicious! This tastes so good!” over healthy meals. A few months ago, she saw my husband making a smoothie and asked for her own leaf of spinach. She shoved it in her mouth and loudly declared, “Mmmmm! Tastes good, Dada!” Monkey see, monkey do.
Look at their nutrition over the week, not over each day.
Our pediatrician is constantly telling us this and it makes sense. Some days, my daughter eats more than I do. Other days, she somehow survives on a box of raisins and half an apple. Some days, she eats broccoli and salmon and spinach, and I’m just so proud I want to tell someone.
Other days, she eats popcorn and M&Ms for breakfast. Trust that it will balance out, and don’t lose sleep over the fact that your toddler has been surviving off of Kix and apple juice for the last three days. It won’t last forever.
Don’t let them win
We’re older and smarter than them. We’ve spent years fine-tuning our mind game skills and stubbornness for such a time as this. Don’t stop offering HEALTHY FOODS because you’re positive they’ll turn it down.
And don’t proactively offer junk food, assuming that’s what they want. They might just surprise you! Be careful not to let on that they might not like a certain food, telling them, “You have to eat at least two bites of this.” Present it to them acting as if you assume they want it, because it’s just so darn delicious.
Accept the fact that they might put up a fight or be unhappy at first. The next week or so might really suck. But be more stubborn than your kids. Be more patient in waiting it out for your win. Use your parenting prowess to your advantage.
So what’s the secret to how to get kids to eat healthy? Raising a healthy eater doesn’t require waking up at 4:00am to cut their eggs and turkey sausage into a fairytale scene. (But if you do enjoy that, your kids are definitely the envy of all of their friends)
We can set our kids up for a healthier future. We’ll fight them now so that they can thank us later.
This post originally appeared on Deb Takes Back Her Life