At Christian Kerr's house, the smoothies are usually green. "My wife makes chocolate banana shakes, with kale, hemp hearts, cocoa nibs, frozen bananas, almond milk and slivered almonds," says the East York, Ont. father of two boys.
The shakes aren't a tough sell: The kids don't mind the green colour as long as they can taste their favourite flavours of chocolate and banana, says Kerr. "As long as you make something that sounds fun to the kids and tastes yummy, they'll eat it."
Toronto registered dietician Karen Balko agrees that making food fun can help kids become veggie and fruit fans. "Play treasure hunt in the supermarket. Find a vegetable of each colour, for example," she suggests. "Put veggies on a stick – kids love to eat things on a stick — or use dips to entice them."
Still locked in combat with a chicken-fingers-eating, white-bread-loving toddler who positively recoils at the sight of broccoli? Keep trying. "Never assume that your children will not eat a certain food, unless of course it's not texturally appropriate for their age and developmental chewing capability, says Balko. "Have a non-assuming, non-judgmental attitude and trust that with the proper approach, kids will learn to eat a variety of foods."
Teaching kids how to eat
With 30% of Canadian children and teens now overweight or obese, according to the Childhood Obesity Foundation, eating a variety of healthy foods is paramount, health experts agree. But instilling good habits is difficult to do. Often, families are rushed due to multiple time commitments, and don't eat together as a family. Those are the times when fast-food drive-through meals become dinner, says Patricia Chuey, a Vancouver dietician and mom.
The key is to do your best. "Being 100% perfect isn't necessary. But I do recommend aiming to eat well at least 80% of the time," says Chuey. "For families whose evening mealtimes have been completely hijacked by sports and lessons, maximize any other opportunities to eat together as a family, whether at weekday breakfasts or Sunday dinner."
Another key strategy is modelling behaviour. If you show an interest in a variety of nutritious foods and your children see you eating these foods regularly, it's a lot easier to get buy-in, says Balko. "Being a positive role model is a pretty good predictor that your children will learn to eat a variety of healthy foods and develop healthy eating patterns, too."
Modelling healthy eating means:
- Letting kids follow their own hunger cues. Balko says kids need to be taught how to self-regulate when it comes to eating. Kids who are forced to eat on command may be at a higher risk of eating disorders later in life.
- Avoiding traps. If dinners have become a battleground and your child is resisting eating because food has become more about control than hunger, take a step back, suggests Balko. Create a peaceful, calm setting, provide a variety of healthy foods and take a deep breath. Children will eventually eat if they are hungry.
- Keeping the snacks to a minimum. Chuey suggests putting out a plate of veggies with a yogurt-based dip for the after-school witching hour. She also advises parents to hide junk food or not buy it at all, to avoid unhealthy snacking and unwanted pounds (on both kids and parents). The end result should be a child who is hungry at dinnertime.
- Skipping the diet discussions. Chuey says parents should not discuss dieting in front of their kids. They should make sensible food choices and avoid talking about their bodies in a negative way.
- Not being sneaky. Balko suggests parents not hide fruit and veggies in other foods. She says kids should be exposed to how fruit and veggies look and taste on the outside of a blender as well as in smoothies, so they can become used to them.
- Not panicking. If your daughter is going through a picky phase, rest assured that she will not starve, says Balko. Conversely, a son who's gained a few extra pounds may shed them later. Just provide healthy meals and exercise opportunities, and give lots of support, according to the Childhood Obesity Foundation.
- Offering a number of nutrient-rich foods, such as low-sugar, iron-fortified cereal, nut butters, dairy products, berries, sweet potatoes and eggs or other protein sources.
Still not having much luck? "If your child continues to balk at trying new foods, wait until he's really hungry to introduce them," says Balko. And remember that you don't have to go cold turkey. "You can still offer chicken fingers and white bread, but not every day. Offering a variety of other finger foods and limiting excess snacking will produce a very hungry child at meal time."
And then that kale just might look good.
Three tips to help your kids eat better:
- When heading out to a sports practice, pack chopped fruit, veggies, sandwiches and yogurt to avoid fast-food meals.
- Get your kids involved in shopping, recipe planning, meal prep and serving. The more they play a part, the more fun food becomes.
- At most meals, aim to cover half the plate with vegetables, accompanying them with high-quality protein and whole grains.