At the dinner table, 14-year-old Ben has voluntarily reached for some turnips—a fact that may surprise you, until you learn that his mom, Jennifer Taylor, is a professor at the University of Prince Edward Island who specializes in children’s nutrition.
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Now you might be even more surprised to learn that Taylor occasionally serves frozen chicken nuggets to Ben and his 12-year-old brother, Will, and that she sprinkles chocolate chips into their pancakes. “I always say the shoemaker’s kids don’t have any shoes, and the dietitian’s kids don’t want to eat healthy,” Taylor chuckles. Even with all her professional know-how, she struggles with many of the same issues you do when it comes to feeding youngsters. So we asked her and other parents who are also nutrition pros to share their balanced-eating strategies that work with their occasionally uncooperative kids.
For Winnipeg dietitian Gina Sunderland, convincing her two sons to eat healthy food begins long before they get to the table. “Dinnertime is a struggle around here, that’s for sure,” says Sunderland. Her 12-year-old son, Reid, is taller than average, but weighs only 80 pounds in part because he’s a picky eater. “We’re always trying to do that balancing act, trying to get enough calories into him, enough different foods and enough nutrients.”
Sunderland finds that it helps to include Reid in her grocery-store trips. That way, he can pick out his own Mom-approved snacks and help plan meals that interest him. Beef stew is one of the few dishes Reid does like, so Sunderland serves it year-round, packed full of vegetables and with whole-grain bread on the side.
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Make a deal
When coaxing their children to try new foods, experts rely on an age-old trick: Pairing it with a tried-and-true favourite. In Taylor’s home, that means adding chocolate chips, rather than blueberries, to whole wheat pancakes so her younger son will eat them.
Lianne Phillipson-Webb, a registered nutritionist whose practice is based in Toronto, convinced her five-year-old daughter, Hadley, to try breaded cod by serving it with a beloved side dish: lemony green beans. “She had a bean after she put the fish in her mouth and ended up eating all of the fish—by eating more green beans.”
In the same spirit, Phillipson-Webb uses a game called Upside-Down Bowl Night. She places a food her daughters enjoy, such as a cookie or fruit sorbet, on a plate, covers it with an upside-down bowl, then tops the bowl with something she wants them to eat, such as raw vegetables or fresh fruit. “They have to eat what’s on top before they can reveal the bottom,” she says.
At Sunderland’s house, the two-bite, 10-minute rule reigns supreme: Her sons must try at least two bites of everything on the table, and sit at the table for at least 10 minutes. “I’ve even said that if things are so bad that you can’t swallow that bite, then you can excuse yourself quietly, go to the garbage and get rid of it,” she says. “I’ve found that has helped us to really increase the repertoire of foods Reid will eat.”
Our experts know that children’s tastes shift frequently, so they reintroduce foods their children have rejected, knowing they may change their minds anytime. For instance, Taylor’s son Ben had steadfastly refused turnips for years — but recently spooned some onto his plate, without any prompting at all from his mom.
In the meantime, if you’re really stuck—perhaps your daughter will not eat anything green—that doesn’t necessarily mean kale is off the menu. You may just have to hide it.
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The secret weapon: smoothies
They may look and taste like a milkshake, but smoothies can also be secretly loaded with the good-for-you foods your kids won’t eat off a plate. That’s why the nutrition experts we consulted love their blenders.
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“I’ve been known to put spinach in our smoothies because you can’t see it among the blueberries,” confides Phillipson-Webb. “The girls never know what that mystery ingredient is because they can’t taste it.” She swears a banana or two will hide the taste of almost anything, even iron-rich kale. You can easily sneak in protein powder, which Sunderland says is perfect for picky eaters like her son, Reid.
Allow some indulgences
Our experts say that teaching children about healthy eating is also about teaching balance. Withholding treats altogether can lead to trouble, says Sunderland, who once saw a little girl hide in a corner at a birthday party and eat an entire bowl of chips set out for the guests. That kind of behaviour, she says, is a sure sign of treat deprivation. To ward that off, Sunderland operates a “treat budget” at her house: Everyone can choose three indulgences a week, whether they be burgers, ice cream or cookies. “I believe all foods can fit into a healthy diet, 100 percent,” she says. “I don’t want my kids to live their lives without treats.”
You can also retool favourite treats to make them more nutritious. Instead of two-bite brownies and ice cream, for example, Phillipson-Webb serves up ice cream-like frozen rice dessert squished between two healthy purchased cookies (she likes Pamela’s Ginger Cookies with Sliced Almonds, which are all-natural, as well as wheat- and gluten-free.). Dessert can also be a great opportunity to pack more fruit into kids; let them swirl blueberries around in vanilla ice cream until it turns purple, or offer strawberries and lightly sweetened whipped cream.
The bottom line
Our three experts agree: The single most important thing every parent should strive for at mealtime isn’t calcium, iron or protein—it’s eating together as a family. “Not only is dinner an opportunity to reconnect, but I think it’s also a really good time for children to learn what a healthy, balanced meal is,” Sunderland says.
But be realistic. If eating together isn’t possible every night of the week, aim for as often as you can. “With hockey and everything, it doesn’t always work out, but I would say at least five days a week, we eat together,” Taylor notes. “They don’t always eat what I want them to eat—but we do eat together.”
Lianne Phillipson-Webb is a registered nutritionist based in Toronto and founder of Sprout Right, a company that provides nutrition guidance for mothers, infants and toddlers. She’s the author of Sprout Right: Nutrition from Tummy to Toddler.
Gina Sunderland works as an oncology dietitian at CancerCare Manitoba, and runs a private nutrition consulting practice in Winnipeg.
Jennifer Taylor a professor with the University of Prince Edward Island’s Department of Family & Nutritional Sciences, is the principal investigator of SNAP, a five-year project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to evaluate the effect of school nutrition policies on obesity and eating habits. She is also president of the PEI Healthy Eating Alliance.
Looking for some fun foods to cook with your kids? Check out this Cooking with Kids video on making baked egg and veggie squares!