How do I get My Kids to Eat Actual Food?!

What do we feed our kids?!?

The short answer is: however much “real food” they are willing to eat, plus concessions made to make sure they’re fed.

At the bottom of this post, I shared some pictures of common school lunches we send to daycare for our 2 and 4 year olds. Our kids are in a daycare where we provide the food and the facility provides snacks. Many places welcome you packing your own snacks if you don’t like what they offer.

It’s hard. With our first daughter, we were able to feed her mostly what we were eating. I puréed it at first, then incorporated more solids and she would eat anything from mushrooms to sausage to liver. I mashed banana into yogurt and cottage cheese, but other than that she was basically eating what we were eating. She didn’t have gluten for over a year, she didn’t eat Goldfish or Cheerios, and we controlled all her snacks at daycare. It wasn’t that hard, either, because she didn’t know any better. She was our healthy little Paleo Baby. BUT- then there was a transition point where the pickiness started, and we found ourselves relying on packaged staples more and more just to get food in her. She became more aware of what classmates, friends and cousins around her were eating, and got wise. Even we as parents couldn’t effectively hide our snacks from her anymore. We are proof that even with the “best” start, things still can go awry.

The second kid has been even harder. She seems to have a more discerning palate than the first to begin with, and then there’s the influence of what her sister is eating now- which is a lot of fruit, chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, and very little veg. She ate processed foods WAY earlier than our first one did. WAY. Our first child didn’t know what candy was until she was 2- our second was asking for M&Ms by name by 18 months. It is SO much harder to shelter them from processed foods as they get older, and once the oldest eats something, all bets are off for the younger ones.

They are both candy/sweets fanatics now- we limit it to a few small treats a day. They are crazy for snacks too, which is harder to limit but we try to push fruit before chips/goldfish. Having available fruit out and visible has been our best strategy for delaying the processed sugar treats. Another one is offering “chocolate milk” that’s really made with a chocolate protein powder that we feel comfortable with our kids having (no yucky additives). I’ll list all our strategies below.

They both eat meat willingly, which we are grateful for since they’re at least getting protein. The veggies are the biggest challenge, for sure. If they could choose, they’d mostly consist of candy and goldfish.
Most days, we can get them to eat jelly sandwiches (sometimes with PB), chicken nuggets, breakfast sausage, noodles with cheese and butter, avocado, pizza, cereal, yogurt and fruit (mostly apples, strawberries, bananas & cantaloupe) without too much struggle, but it depends on moods.

Here are some of my best tips to get kids to eat, maximize their nutrients and minimize the processed junk they tend to love so much:

Strategies to get kids to eat at meal times:

  • Ask what they want, but give a choice of only 2-3 items versus “What would you like for dinner?”
    • Too many choices or freedom is confusing for kids, and they might end up asking for something you don’t have or isn’t appropriate for dinner and get stuck on wanting that thing.
  • If you can, change up their choices. Kids get into food ruts and if they’re too ingrained, they will become even more particular. I mean variety of foods, but also variety within each type of food as well.
    • For example, expose them to different kinds of mac & cheese and different shaped nuggets. This way, they will be less likely to turn up their nose at Grandma’s homemade or a restaurant choice. This has worked well for us so far (and it doesn’t hurt to use names like “dino tails” or “dino eggs” when Dinosaur-shaped nuggets are unavailable).
  • Reward Systems: Not for all parents or kids, and this is a very personal choice that parents must consider, since there can be downsides in addition to them potentially being very effective.
    • Promise of a treat after dinner, Sticker chart that includes eating meals, Marbles in a jar for eating with a prize for a filling the jar over time. Can also be framed as taking something away for NOT eating, but parents must be careful because discipline around eating can form a child’s relationship with food into a negative experience.
    • Ultimately, you must do what works for you and your kids. In a perfect world, I would not want to reward my kids with sugar just for eating a delicious and nutritious meal, but here we are, doing just that (see list of how to reduce processed sweets below).
  • Involve them in grocery shopping.
  • Involve them in prep and cooking (including the “make it fun” bullet point in the next section).
  • Allergy testing if they are averse to certain foods or have reactions.
  • GI consult if they have bad reflux, vomiting or digestive issues.
  • Occupational or Speech therapy to evaluate and treat potential sensory or feeding/swallowing issues.

Strategies to increase REAL foods:

  • Set an example by eating the foods you want them to try yourself.
  • Exposure: putting tiny amounts on their plates at first and slowly increasing (the first step may simply be for them to allow the food to be on their plate without eating it).
  • Give them your meal deconstructed (e.g. if you’re having tacos, let them eat a tortilla, have a few beans or meat crumbles on their plate and a pile of shredded cheese, all separate).
  • Involve them in prep and cooking (smoothies, cutting with safer knives, stirring, watching).
  • Involve them in grocery shopping.
  • Make some of the “adult meal” more palatable for them by going lighter on seasoning or sauce.
  • Let them eat off your plate if they ask or are curious.
  • Cover or dip a veggie in something they love (cheese, ranch, peanut butter, ketchup).
  • Make it fun (ants on a log, dyeing hard boiled eggs and then trying them, english muffin pizzas with different toppings, homemade pigs in a blanket, using cookie cutters for fun shapes, letting them try different kitchen gadgets with fruit/veggies).
  • Shop by color and let them pick a fruit or veggie in the color of their choice.
  • Hide veggies in dishes they like (cheese sauce made with butternut squash, green smoothies, cauliflower mash mixed with mashed potato, etc.)

Strategies to decrease candy and processed sweets:

  • Offer fruit first/have fruit readily available (and offer a variety early on so they’re not just stuck on 2 kinds).
  • Offer dried fruit before candy (at least it has fiber, and you can find ones with no added sugar).
  • Offer “chocolate milk” or other flavored protein powders mixed in milk, since they offer more nutrients (check ingredients for yucky additives or too much added sugar- we use Juice Plus brand).
  • Offer “juice” as a treat, but consistently water it down so their idea of juice is not that sweet.
  • Fruit leather or other more naturally sweetened products like these can be presented as treats.
  • Gummy vitamins (we like Juice Plus brand) can be presented as treats.
  • Try brands like “Yum Earth,” which sell candy but with more natural ingredients.

The cookies and candy are inevitable (in our house, anyway), but we will continue to try to choose the lesser of “evils” when we can and not worry too much about it.

**We are very grateful that, right now, neither of our children have severe food allergies or sensitivities. If your kids do, please know this next paragraph is NOT about you. I see you, and your efforts are necessary.**

We do not want to be dogmatic about restricting our kids’ food, because I have seen that tactic backfire with rebellion, sneaking and bingeing on unhealthy foods. We want our kids to be able to attend parties (post-pandemic) and feel comfortable with them eating whatever, because hopefully their overall diet will consist of nutritious, filling foods. I think of the 80/20 rule- that if they’re eating well 80% of the time, I don’t need to worry so much about the other 20%. Kids’ bodies are resilient and can handle the bodily “stress” of processing unhealthy foods on occasion, as long as it’s not all they get. If your kids’ ratio is NOT 80/20- don’t worry too much. I don’t think we’ve reached that either yet, but it’s something to strive for besides reaching for perfection. Remember, perfect doesn’t exist, and even striving for it is not the best use of your efforts.

Good luck out there, parents! We have the toughest yet most rewarding job ever. Speaking for myself, I don’t want to look back on this time and think how much mental and physical energy I wasted obsessing about food instead of focusing on raising kind humans. The health of my kids is hugely important to me, but I can only control so much.

I hope these strategies were helpful!

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