You know the rules: Avoid junk food, follow Canada’s Food Guide, finish your veggies or no dessert. But who says healthy eating has to be by the book? Vancouver dietitian Patricia Chuey sees a lot of stressed-out parents in her practice — and she’s all for breaking the rules around food. “Food represents much more than a bunch of vitamins and minerals,” she says. “In addition to nourishment, at times it’s OK if it’s fun, a comfort, a celebration, a seasonal treat, a learning opportunity and much, much more.” Chuey says many parents worry needlessly about what (and how much) their kids eat. “Every parent is doing the right thing by valuing healthy eating and taking steps to make it happen in their home,” she says. Still feel that you’ve exhausted your repertoire of taste-bud-tempting tricks, or fret over every veggie that gets pushed to the side of the plate? Relax. We’ve canvassed nutrition pros across Canada and unearthed some neat ways to get kids to the table — hungry and excited about eating healthy.
1. Serve dinner for breakfast
Leftover chicken and rice for breakfast? Pancakes for dinner? Well, why not? If it was a healthy, balanced meal last night, it’s still a healthy, balanced meal this morning — and vice versa. “We’re the ones who teach kids the notion of what food is appropriate for what meal,” says Shannon Crocker, a registered dietitian and mother of two in Ancaster, Ont.
So if your kids’ favourite dinnertime fare is pizza, make mini-pizzas for breakfast, she says. Just fill pita pockets with tomato sauce, ham, pineapple and cheese, and heat them up; or make fruity pizzas on toasted English muffins with light cream cheese, sliced bananas, berries and grapes. Kebabs are another meal traditionally reserved for dinnertime, but they can be a healthy option all day long, says Chuey. “My five-year-old son likes breakfast kebabs made with cubes of ham or turkey sausage with cheese, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi or cantaloupe chunks — basically anything you can put on a stick.” (Tip: Use a Popsicle stick instead of a pointy skewer.)
2. Say yes to junk food
Many parents feel they’ve failed when they break out not-so-virtuous snacks, but let’s face it — chocolate is yummy and chips make a great side to a sandwich. “We all like chips once in a while, and I don’t know a single parent who eats perfectly all of the time, so you can’t expect children to,” says Kelly Spec, a dietitian and owner of Spectrum Nutrition Centre in Vancouver. Besides, forbidding certain foods just makes them more attractive, she says. “Offer healthy choices regularly, but don’t beat yourself up about the bad and the ugly once in a while.”
To ease your conscience, you can also offer treats with some nutritional value. For instance, chocolate milk is a good source of protein and calcium, says Chuey.
3. Stop keeping track
If every meal is fraught with questions (Did they eat enough meat? Enough veggies? Enough altogether?), take a step back. “Kids’ appetites fluctuate with their level of activity, their mood and their growth,” says Stephanie Jamain, a registered dietitian with ATP Nutrition in Montreal. “Don’t stress over a couple of unbalanced meals — or days.”
Sure, it’s good to strive for balance, adds Melanie Stokes, program development coordinator for the Kids Eat Smart Foundation in St. John’s. “You can aim for three of the four food groups at breakfast, and four at lunch and dinner, but don’t worry if it doesn’t happen every time.”
Over the course of a week, most kids will eat what they need, agrees Jennifer House, owner of First Step Nutrition in Calgary. A parent’s job is to decide what’s for dinner; a kid’s job is to decide how much of it to eat. “Many parents try to control how much their kids eat, but this just leads to power struggles,” says House. Letting kids learn their own satiety signals means they’re less likely to grow up with appetite control issues or disordered eating. “If your child is healthy, has energy and is an appropriate weight, don’t waste time worrying about how much they eat at a meal.”
4. Get the kids cookin’
If kids can make it, kids are more likely to eat it. “I have one of the pickiest eaters in the world, so I’ve gotten pretty practised at coming up with interesting twists to help him eat healthy,” says Crocker. “My latest is letting both my kids plan and make a meal a week. It’s a little more work, but my six-year-old just told me he wants to be a chef when he grows up.”
Crocker recommends “build it yourself” meals, such as fajitas, salad bars, sandwiches and pizza —and fruit ’n’ yogurt parfaits for dessert. Just set out an array of healthy ingredients and let the kids do the rest. And it’s great for kids of all ages, adds Chuey. “Preschoolers can stir batter, mash potatoes — even small children can sit in their high chair and mix things in a bowl or play with kid-friendly kitchen gadgets.”
Another tactic is letting your family serve themselves from bowls in the middle of the table, as opposed to just plunking plates down in front of them. “Serving food family-style can work for any meal,” says House. “And family members can take what and how much they want, so there’s no pressure to eat more or less of any particular food.”
5. Get saucy
Meals are always more fun when there’s dipping involved. “Dipping also makes dry foods moist and easier to eat for younger children,” says House. And as long as it gets kids eating more of something healthy, the dip can be just about anything: yogurt, applesauce, hummus, maple syrup, ketchup, gravy (just don’t be horrified by some of the more unusual taste combinations they might come up with!). Dressings, condiments and sauces are also a good way to introduce new tastes. “A dip can give new foods a familiar flavour and might help them go down easier on the first introduction.”
6. Play with your food
Mealtimes should be more playground than battleground. Get the party started by having fun with food names (for example, super-vision carrots, broccoli trees) and play with presentation. Food can be arranged into face shapes, stacked into toothpick towers, or cut up with cookie cutters. For older kids, get your game face on — take away everyone’s utensils (but provide plenty of napkins!), or enjoy a giggly “monk meal” where no one’s allowed to talk. Making mealtime fun doesn’t just get kids eating well, it also leaves them with fond memories of food as they grow up, says House. “Some meals I remember most from my childhood are “ants on a log” (celery with peanut butter and raisins) and “soldiers” (strips of toast dipped into soft-boiled eggs).”
7. Make dessert part of the meal
We know you’re thinking: “Won’t they just eat the dessert first?” Maybe — but only until the novelty wears off, says House. “Offer one small portion of the dessert so your child will be hungry and still eat dinner.” This way, dessert just becomes part of the meal for kids, instead of a “reward” for polishing off their potatoes. “You’ll be surprised when your child suddenly takes a bite of dessert along with a bite of something else, instead of just gobbling up the dessert first.” Of course, the type of dessert is key: Fresh fruit is the obvious first choice, but apple crisp, rice pudding, homemade oatmeal cookies, frozen yogurt or banana bread are other good options.
8. Go grazing
Most parents overestimate the size of their kids’ stomachs, says Crocker, so small meals and snacks spread over the day are actually better than the old “three squares.” The other advantage to offering smaller meals and two or three snacks in between is that if one meal is a flop, there’s another opportunity for healthy eating just around the corner.
Just be consistent when it comes to timing. This way your children will develop their own hunger cues — but don’t force kids to eat if they’re not hungry. Choose a variety of healthy, kid-friendly snacks. “Grazing is a really healthy way to get in extra good-for-you foods,” says Crocker. One of her kids’ favourites is “munchy mix” that they make themselves, then store in jars labelled with their names. Crocker sets out bowls of everything from dried fruit, cereals and seeds to Goldfish crackers, chocolate chips and Mini-Wheats. “There’s sugar in it, yes, but there’s also fibre and iron and it gets them eating,” she says. “As adults, we might never mix fishy crackers with Mini-Wheats, but they love it.”
9. Glam up fruit and veggies
Tired of saying “Eat your vegetables”? Try serving fruit and vegetables in unexpected ways, says Chuey. From fruit and yogurt ice pops to sweet potato and zucchini fries, anything out of the ordinary is guaranteed to pique their interest. “And it’s OK to add a taste booster to veggies,” she says. “Try a drizzle of olive oil or a sprinkle of cheese on veggies like broccoli, corn and spinach. It really does enhance the flavour and make it tastier for kids — and adults!”
And don’t consider frozen or canned a cop-out — they can be both healthy and handy, says Stokes (think instant smoothie or stir-fry). In fact, during the cooler months you might find more nutritious, tastier produce in the frozen food section versus the produce section. “Frozen and canned produce is processed at peak ripeness, so it’s at its most flavourful and highest in nutrients,” says Stokes. (Look for canned produce packed in water as opposed to oil or syrup.) Also, rinse foods if they have added sugar or salt.
10. Don’t try so hard
Bottom line: Getting kids to eat healthy should not make you break a sweat. Nutritious meals don’t have to be elaborate — a peanutbutter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk can make a super supper, not to mention a refreshing change from meat and potatoes.
“Prepare your family meal the way you normally would and the rest is up to your kids,” says Spec. And forget about coaxing, encouraging, threatening or begging, she adds, because when you don’t make a big deal about food and simply turn your back, whatever was pushed to the side of the plate may well have disappeared by the time you turn around. “Kids will eat healthy, delicious food if you continue to offer it,” she says. And they’ll learn to eat on their own terms too, which is the key to healthy eating in the long run.
This article originally appeared in our February 2011 issue.
Looking for some fun foods to cook with your kids? Check out this Cooking with Kids video on making bacon buttermilk pancakes!