Get them in the kitchen and around food. Helping with the process and seeing where food comes from helps kids be excited for the food you’re serving. “I’m always amazed when my kids are annoyingly in my way in the kitchen and then I make them my sous chefs and we have a blast,” Dr. Ramsey says. “Kids love to cook and start this at a young age. Take kids to the farmers’ market and a real farm. And have them plant some seeds. We have a little window box with mint, herbs, and kale plants and often have a little nibble of something to start the day.”
Turn it into an adventure. Kids will also be more invested if they help hunt for the food. “Have a treasure hunt in the supermarket,” says Lisa Sasson, M.S., R.D., clinical associate professor of nutrition at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, who teaches a course on pediatric nutrition. “Let kids come up with a recipe they want to help make and have kids help prepare the meals.”
Use cool shapes and utensils. Tempt them to the healthy side with kitchen props. “Use cookie cutters, special character toothpicks (depending on age of child), like Dora or Elmo, to use for individual bites, and special shape waffle makers,” says Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, M.S., R.D., CDN, CDE, a New Jersey-based registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. “Kids also enjoy dipping into tasty sauces. Use very small ‘dipping’ bowls for kids to try out different flavors like hummus, mustard, barbecue sauce, tartar sauce, etc.”
Let them choose grown-up food when dining out. Don’t box children into the kids’ menu choices. “As much as possible, allow the child choices from the regular menu as well, beyond the French fries, hot dogs, grilled cheese, plain pasta,” says Julie Kaminski, a New Jersey-based certified wellness coach, counselor, and trainer. “Adult-size appetizers can be great options for expanding the palate, healthier choices, and empowering the child beyond the paper coloring menu.”
RELATED: Find a Nutritionist Near You
Ways to Change Kids' Taste Preferences
Start them young. Delay introduction to sweet foods, flavors, and juices, because once children have tasted the sweetened version they don’t want to go back. “New research shows healthy eating begins early on in the womb, but foods and flavors introduced early in infancy can help mold a child’s palate and future food preferences,” Malkoff-Cohen says. “It is important to provide a wide array of flavors when starting purées. Start with savory flavors and vegetables before fruits to help increase their acceptance.”
Make eating a game. Slow kids down and help them to appreciate food, Ellis says. “Kids can slow their eating and become more present [when you ask] them: ‘What did that taste like? Was it sweet? Was it tart?’” she says. “Encouraging kids to focus their attention on taste and enjoying the different flavors and textures is better for digestion and portion control and also encourages a sense of gratitude for the food and whoever prepared it. This, as opposed to inhaling the meal and asking for more.” This can also help them expand their food horizons.
Break the habit slowly. Don’t try to change their diet overnight or enforce new rules about eating in an exasperated way. “Parents need to be mindful of adjusting their children’s eating habits in an ‘organic’ way without inadvertently causing power struggles and increased resistance to eating more healthfully,” Dr. Kahane says. “Often in our attempt to create change we feed our children’s rigidity.”
Fake it ‘til you make it. Advertisements of junky food with favorite characters lures kids in and will always be challenge. If your kids are hard to win over, try healthy tricks (it’s for their own good). Make snacks with healthy ingredients and put them in a familiar container. “Save the box with Elmo on it,” Malkoff-Cohen says. “Make a homemade version and pretend the homemade version came from there!”
Remember, change doesn’t happen overnight, but with some planning and a dose of creativity, your kids will be well on their way to healthier eating habits!
RELATED: Check Out Our Favorite Recipes