If you’re over the daily mealtime battle—the one in which you try your hardest to get your kids to eat healthfully—we hear you. Cutesy recipes are great (we’ve got 13 kid-approved ones here), but they don’t work every time. So we turned to some experts to offer time-tested tips for getting your little ones to be less picky, try new foods, and (gasp!) love veggies. Here, our 10 faves:
Give kiddos some power.
The more you give your kids the power to choose—a fun recipe, a new fruit or veggie to prepare as a side dish, or even the theme of the meal—the more your kids will be likely to get excited about trying new foods, says Joy Bauer, a registered dietitian nutritionist and TODAY‘s nutrition and health expert. “It’s a simple equation that will make mealtimes less fraught,” she says. “More freedom equals less fussing. When you involve your kids with planning and prep a few nights each week, you’ll find they’re less likely to argue about finishing their veggies.”
Serve meals family style.
By serving foods family style, you’re basically inviting your kids to help themselves to whatever’s on the dining room table. Sit back and watch as your kids expand their palates. “If my kids only eat strawberries and rice and ignore the chicken, I don’t care,”” says Lindsay Powers, a mom of two and author of You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids: A Judgment-Free Guide to Stress-Free Parenting. “What I can do is to choose a mix of healthy food and give my kids the control to choose how much they want, which takes the pressure off everyone. And, because I spend a lot less time pleading with them to ‘just eat one piece of broccoli,’ they feel less pressure and have become more adventurous eaters—or are at least willing to try something new.”
Encourage food play.
Playing with food may be considered by some to be a no-no, but this playfulness—and fun—actually serves a role in helping to give kids exposure to foods in a non-threatening way. “Rather than having a negative experience with food, by playing with it, kids begin to think about the food in a positive light,” says Kara Hoerr, a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice in Madison, WI. “They may not eat this new food while playing with it, but the next time they’re served it on a plate, they may be more likely to try it.”
Build on the familiar.
Consider this: You might be able to expose your child to new foods by pairing them with foods they already love. “If your daughter likes carrots, maybe she’ll enjoy them dipped in hummus or guacamole for something new,” says Marisa Moore, RDN, a culinary and integrative dietitian in Atlanta.
Mix it up with an all-snacks meal.
Think cheese, crackers, a smear of peanut butter, milk, and a banana. “This hits a ton of food groups,” Powers says. “It’s relatively affordable to serve, and it will help clear out the odds and ends of your pantry and fruit bowl. And, because you’ve called it “a snack meal,” kids will love it. Sometimes I roll out a blanket on my living room floor and serve the snack meal as a picnic!”
Focus on mealtime—not the meal.
To get your kids to eat better, try as hard as you can not to stress about what your kids are eating when you do sit down for a meal. “Research shows that the time we spend together during mealtime routines is way more important than what is on our kids’ plates,” Powers says. “Kids thrive off comfort and routine and meal time is a perfect way to achieve both.”
Add some novelty to food.
Sometimes, presentation can make all the difference when it comes to piquing your kids’ interest in a new sampling of foods. To that end, consider serving foods in muffin tins, offer your kids the chance to eat using a small spatula instead of a spoon or cut sandwiches or fruit into fun shapes. “This creates a fun experience for kids and they’ll be way more likely to try new foods when the experience is fun for them,” Hoerr says.
Think outside the recipe box.
If your child doesn’t like steamed broccoli, don’t give up, Bauer says. Instead, try another way in. “Whip up a batch of pan-charred broccoli, creamy broccoli soup, broccoli and chicken stir-fry, or top this healthy veggie with cheese sauce or marinara,” she says. “Be creative and experiment until you find a recipe your child does like.”
Avoid the snack trap.
To avoid the I’m too full for dinner trap, Hoerr suggests ‘closing’ the kitchen between meals and snacks. “So often kids are eating snacks constantly throughout the day, whether it’s at the doctor’s office to keep them occupied or in the car to keep them quiet,” she says. “By giving your kids snacks throughout the day with no schedule, they’re less hungry at meal time and this results in them not eating a balanced meal.”
When all else fails, sneak in healthy foods.
If you’ve tried all of these suggestions, consider this: Sometimes, it’s easier to just slip veggies into your kids’ favorite foods. Here are Bauer’s favorite ways to do just that: Add a handful of kale or spinach into sweet fruit smoothies, toss chopped broccoli into mac and cheese, blend diced carrots and red bell peppers into meatballs, burgers or meatloaf. Mix cauliflower rice with traditional rice and blend canned pumpkin puree into marinara sauce and taco meat. ‘The options are limitless,’ she says.
Set your kids up to have healthy attitudes towards food.
Ask Powers and she’ll tell you that her ultimate goal as a parent is to raise healthy, happy, somewhat adventurous eaters, who don’t have a bunch of hang-ups over food. To make this happen, she’s not going to get into food-based battles. “Begging with them to eat green foods, putting labels on foods like ‘bad’ or ‘good’ doesn’t accomplish that goal,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to be flexible, model relatively healthy eating habits myself (always with an emphasis on moderation), and make a broad range of food available for them to try.”
Let your kids help out.
Turns out, the more your kids are involved in making a meal, the more apt they are to eat the food, says Vanessa Rissetto, a registered dietitian in New York City. “I also suggest giving your kids some autonomy when cooking,” she says. “For example, consider getting them safety knives to help with the chopping.”
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