How to Get Infants, Children & Teens Eating Healthy Food?

Kids and vegetables: Nutrition lessons, not sneaky tricks.

Generations of parents have been searching for ways to get their children to eat vegetables. Some popular recent approaches include “sneaky tricks” such as hiding vegetables or disguising them as something more palatable. However, a new Stanford University study has found that simply teaching children about healthy eating is all it takes.

Honesty is the best policy

In popular culture, the assumption is that if children had their way, vegetables or any other healthy food wouldn’t exist. A recent trend to emerge is the idea of “stealth” vegetables undefined healthy foods hiding in such confections as brownies and ice cream undefined or gourmet creations for kids that most adults would salivate over such as backed kale chips or macaroni and cheese with grated carrots and squash.

However, tricking children into eating vegetables may be underestimating their intelligence. Honesty may be the best strategy, according to a new study published in Psychological Science.

Children are curious

Stanford psychologists Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markham have found that young children have no problem understanding the concept of good nutrition. In their study, teaching four-and five-year olds why their bodies need a variety of healthy food motivated them to voluntarily eat more vegetables.

According to the researchers, adults often assume that explanations of complex, abstract concepts are confusing for young children. But they believe children are naturally curious and want to understand how things work.

A conceptual approach

Gripshover and Markman created five storybooks that simplified key concepts about food and nutrition, including: a balanced diet with a variety of foods, how digestion works, and how nutrients keep their bodies healthy and functioning like they should.

Each week a different book was read to preschoolers in two classrooms during snack time for about three months while two other classrooms had snack time as usual. Later the researchers asked the children questions about food, nutrition and physiology to gauge their understanding of the knowledge presented in the books.

Gripshover and Markman found that the children attending the snack time reading sessions ate more than twice the amount of vegetables after hearing the books than before. Vegetable consumption for children in the other classrooms remained the same. The children in the reading sessions also retained their knowledge about the role nutrients play in their bodies.

In another experiment, the researchers compared their teaching strategy to one based on Department of Agriculture materials that emphasize the enjoyment of healthy eating and the adventure of trying new foods. The USDA approach also increased vegetable consumption among the preschoolers, but not nearly as much as the Stanford storybook strategy.

“What sets our materials apart from other approaches is the care we took to explain to children why their body needs different kinds of healthy food, the researchers wrote. “We did not train children to eat more vegetables specifically.”

earthsave-children-healthThe conceptual approach appeared to work well for children in the process of forming their perceptions about life. But for adults set in their ways, perhaps hidden vegetables may be the way to go. What’s important to remember is that if YOU feel that vegetables must be tolerated and only eaten for health reasons, THEY will sense this. Make sure your attitude towards vegetables is one of passion and delight and they may very well grow up to be just like you.

How to get kids eating healthy food in an unhealthy world
First things first - never give up. Their healthy patterns for life are at stake. Even if your children seem to dislike a new veggie at first, keep on trying. It can take between five and 10 exposures for your children to warm up to a new food.

Here are some tips that work when trying to pump your children full of the good stuff. By Earthsave team member Jennifer:

Ground flaxseed can be hidden in ANYTHING. Smoothies, sauces, mixed into condiments, sprinkled between layers of casseroles, etc. It is high in protein and fibre, and provides a healthy dose of omega 3s.

There are alot of greens that look similar. Mix it up. Iceberg, leaf, romaine, kale, mustard greens, swiss chard. If you get into the habit of shredding it all, it looks relatively the same.

Don’t ask them. Just serve. If you attempt to get your kids’ opinions about trying new foods, chances are, you’ll be disappointed. Just slightly change a fave dish (instead of lettuce on those tacos, use cabbage or kale), and hopefully they’ll be more receptive than if you introduced a whole new one.

Make your own food. Instead of canned chili, make it. It’s super easy, and then you can control what goes in there. (Add flax.) This way, you can get your kids involved in the process, and at the very least, you’re not exposing them to foods that were swimming around in BPA. (Toxic plastic.)

Don’t buy anything white– use whole wheat or better yet, sprouted grain. By substituting white bread for sprouted hemp, it adds a whole new wack of nutrients. Don’t comprimise. Just stop buying the empty stuff and start with the better products. If they don’t have a choice, it will be easier.

You can throw hemp hearts and rolled oats into all of your baking. Also, cut the sugar in half.

Purchase items with fewer ingredients. For example, some snack bars have about 20 different ingredients in them, whereas others have only 4 is better.

Make it fun. Let your kids sprout with you or plant veggies. If they see it grow, they will be more likely to try it.

Make breakfast smoothies. Smoothies are fun, and a great way to incorporate different varieties of fresh or frozen produce. You can also make popsicles (make a fruit & veggie smoothie, and then pour into moulds). I like to throw an avocado in smoothies– you can’t see them or taste them, but it makes them super creamy.

Puree veggies and add them to sauces. Example: if you’re making pasta, puree some butternut squash and an avocado, and add it to the sauce. It will be delicious, and your kids will never know.

Vary your grains. Instead of making rice, make couscous or quinoa. Instead of cold breakfast cereal, try oatmeal. Think ‘variety.’ Your kids probably like a whole host of good food–they just haven’t tried it yet.

Some kid-friendly healthy snack and meal ideas:
Snacks: Apples and peanut/almond butter, veggies with hummus, hummus and grainy crackers, smoothies, fruit salad, homeade trail mix (kids like making this), frozen blueberries, dried fruit, fruit kabobs, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds.

Get creative. If your kids see melon balls with toothpicks sticking out of them, they’ll probably go for it, big-time! Make applesauce with them! Bake pears with cinnamon and oats! Make brownies with black beans!

Meal Ideas: Lettuce wraps, fajitas (use vegan ground round or mushrooms instead of meat), make your own veggie pizza, veggie kabobs, chickpea dishes (kids usually love chickpeas and kidney beans). Sides? Try homeade yam or sweet potato fries, or mash some cauliflower into your potato dish– the idea is to just try and vary the foods your kiddies are consuming.
Have the Buffet: If all else fails, try the “buffet”: assemble a plate of healthy snacks, and let your kids go at it. Fresh and whole trumps processed every single time.

More from Jennifer Browne here