Inspire Healthy Kids: Getting Toddlers & Children Involved – How to Get Kids to Try New Foods
Yesterday I spoke about how to talk to teenagers about the importance of a healthy diet. Today I’d like to share some ideas on how to get younger kids involved, too. Here are some ideas on ways to inspire healthy kids from a very young age!
Feed Them Healthy Food
Toddlers and young children are very impressionable and generally really look up to their parents. Ultimately, our kids will imitate many things we say and do, our mannerisms, our values, and even our diets. We all do some things our parents did, even if we don’t realize it. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! Also, remember that “comfort” food is the food we found comforting when we grew up. If our childhood favorite was grilled brussels sprouts or kale chips, those are the things we will return to for good feelings later in life. So just by feeding kids healthy food from the very beginning you are setting them up for a lifetime of returning to the foods you fed them as children.
Take Them Shopping
One great way to get your kids involved is to take them food shopping with you. Show them the different fruits and vegetables. Let them see different colors and feel different textures. Smooth purple eggplant, fuzzy brown kiwi fruit, dimpled orange mandarin, bumpy green kale… There are so many types and textures of fruits and vegetables.
Next, help them decide on some items to buy. Let them take control of the dinner menu by choosing fruits and vegetables to incorporate. It’s fine if they choose the same old ones they already eat and enjoy. If it’s fresh fruit and vegetables, it is still healthy! This won’t 100% guarantee that they’ll eat it (kids can be so unpredictable) but as long as you have an adventurous spirit, too, at least you can eat it up, and they will see you doing so. This will encourage kids to try and eat more in the future.
Encourage kids to select at least one new fruit or vegetable (but not more than one or two at a time, or it can be overwhelming… fun in the store might be overload at home). If it’s new to you, then be adventurous and learn how to cook and prepare it. Make it exciting and get your child involved, too.
Unfortunately, grocery stores can be quagmires, with lots of junk food and colorful packaging designed to appeal to kids. So don’t take them to the supermarket. Take them instead to the farmer’s market or a specialized fruit and vegetable stand. This removes most of the junk food from the equation.
Get Them to Try New Foods
Many kids have aversions or fears of unknown foods. It’s not good to force it on them, but at the same time, it is important that kids learn to try new foods. It can be frustrating as a parent to have a child who will only eat the same two or three vegetables. It also makes you concerned about how to make sure they’re getting the right amounts and combinations of vitamins and minerals. Kids need a varied diet and a balanced diet.
There are some steps you can slowly take to expose your child to new foods:
- Show them the uncut, uncooked food. Let them touch it, play with it, etc.
- Show them the cut, uncooked food. Let them touch it, play with it, etc.
- If it is an item (like eggplant) that cannot be eaten raw, show them the cooked food. Let them touch it, play with it, etc.
- Give them a piece of the item and encourage them to lick it. Remind them it’s not going IN their mouth and they do not have to eat it. Show them a demonstration. Perhaps make it part of an activity that involves licking many other items they already like. Once they lick it, talk to them about it. Ask them how they would describe it. Is it bumpy or smooth? Hard or soft? Wet or dry? The more non-taste adjectives you can come up with, the better. Repeat step 4 as many times as necessary until the child is comfortable with the new food.
- Give them a piece and encourage them to take it in their mouth. Remind them they are comfortable with licking it and they do not have to chew or eat it. If they are completely unwilling, go back to step 4. Once they have it in their mouth, have them roll it around. Ask them lots of questions about it, as you did with step 4. Ask them if it feels different in their mouth than when they licked it. If they seem okay with it, ask them about the taste. Repeat step 5 until the child is comfortable with the new food.
- Give them a piece and encourage them to chew it. Remind them that they are comfortable with licking it and holding it in their mouth, and make it clear they do not have to eat it. Provide them with a receptacle in case they want to spit it out. If they are unwilling to do so, repeat step 5. Once they chew it, ask them questions about it. What kind of texture was it? What noises did it make when they chewed it? Was it soft or hard? Was it easy to chew? Ask them to describe the flavor. Did it taste different from when they licked it and held it in their mouth?
- Give them a piece and encourage them to eat it. Go through steps 4, 5, and 6 in order and then simply ask them to swallow. If they are unwilling, stop at step 6. If they do swallow it, congratulations! Your child just ate the new food! Once they swallow ask them questions about it. Did they taste anything when they swallowed it, and if so, what? Did they taste anything after they swallowed it? How did it feel as it went down their throat? Would they be willing to do this again?
I recommend doing one step per day for a one-week plan to introduce one new food per week until they’re comfortable. You may find it takes much longer, especially if your child has serious food issues or texture aversion. The slow introduction process will also make it easier for you to rule out any potential allergies, if that’s a big concern for you. Of course, if you ask your child to lick it and she wants to eat it, then she’s definitely more open to new experiences and might breeze through the steps all in one shot.
The great thing is that once they learn that tasting new foods is fun, they won’t be afraid of it anymore. Last night I gave my boys a new fruit, an achacha. It is delicious, with a flavor reminiscent of mangosteen. Of course they loved it (how can you not love something that tastes like mangosteen?!). But they both tried it and loved it. I didn’t have to force them. They both wanted it. Persistence and patience pays off.
Get Them Gardening
Kids who grow things are more willing to eat them. Investing their time and effort in caring for a plant, watching it slowly blossom and then bear fruit, and then finally being able to pick it makes kids feel more connected to their food.
Remember, you don’t need to be a farmer to do this, and you don’t even need a backyard. My brother-in-law grows vegetables in pots in his small apartment. His two young daughters love it! Most plants do not require a lot of effort, so you only need to devote a few minutes per day in giving the plant a bit of water, ensuring it is getting enough sunlight, and teaching your child about it. Of course, the more your toddler or young child is able to be involved, the better. Let her do the watering, sprinkle plant food on it, move it into the sun, and talk to her a lot about how the plant is growing food for her to eat.
I recommend starting with vegetables she can eat raw, right off the plant. Cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, capsicum/bell pepper, and even zucchini are good options. That way when the first veggies are ready to be picked she can try some straight away. Choose vegetables she can watch grow and get excited about. So avoid things like onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots, or you’ll likely be answering the same questions about how big the vegetable is day after day.
Let Them Cook
Kids who get involved in cooking are more likely to eat what they’ve cooked. As with the gardening option, they feel more connected to food they helped prepare. Give toddlers and young children easy tasks like mixing things together or helping pour. For example, if you want to make a dish of rice with vegetables, let her pour the cups of rice and water into the pot, bowl, or rice cooker. When it is ready to be assembled, let her add the veggies/seeds/nuts/spices and stir them in (tomatoes are an amazing one, as are pine nuts, sesame seeds, and grated vegetables like zucchini or carrot… the possibilities with a dish like this are endless).
This technique can be applied for nearly any meal. Of course it may slow down your cooking time as you supervise your little assistant. But then again, it may not. By getting your kids involved as you cook, you guarantee they won’t be interrupting you every five minutes, making a mess you later have to clean up, or clinging to your skirts whining. It’s actually a great stimulating activity, so it could be a real win-win situation!
I hope these tips help you get your young children to be more involved. The more involved kids are in their relationship with healthy food, and the more willing they are to try new healthy foods, the longer their relationship with healthy food will last. This is how to set your kids up not just for a healthy childhood, but for a healthy life.