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Making Healthful Eating Fun, Exciting for Kids

By Katie Cavuto, MS, RD

Getting children to eat healthful foods and make healthful food choices starting at an early age is a key component in their development and long-term health. But inspiring young children to eat vegetables, fruits, and whole grains each day can be a challenge for many parents.

The trick is to make healthful eating fun and exciting for kids so they’re more inclined to make nutritious food choices starting now and for the remainder of their lives. Today’s Dietitian spoke with some experts who have provided the following seven tips RDs can share with clients to encourage their kids to begin eating more healthfully for a lifetime.

1. Educate, educate. Encourage parents to explain to their school-age children why it’s important to eat a healthful meal, suggests Jill Castle, MS, RD, author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School. For instance, parents can use real-life examples by saying something like, “If you eat a healthful meal, you’ll have more energy for gym class and your favorite sport,” she says, adding that such an example makes it more personal for kids.

According to Keith Kantor, ND, PhD, and Dana Yarn, RD, LD, Alpharetta, Georgia-based coauthors of The Green Box League of Nutritious Justice, parents can take it one step further with older children and explain the relationship between healthful eating and disease prevention. “Our children are smart,” Kantor says, so parents should teach them about diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and follow that with lessons on how to prevent such illnesses. “Relate a disease to a child’s loved one,” he says, so they have a direct reference and the motivation to eat those foods that can prevent it.

2. Use cartoon characters. In Kantor and Yarn's book, healthful foods turn into superheroes to make the concepts of nutritious foods come alive for children. The book also encourages coloring and spelling exercises to make the nutrition lessons interactive and exciting.

If you can “see it, hear it, color it, and spell it,” kids eventually will learn that “an apple is healthier than a cupcake,” Kantor says.

“Naming your meals or foods with creative, catchy words like tornado tacos or Casa (insert family name) Italiano” is another way to make healthful eating entertaining, Castle says.

3. Plan meals with the kids. The meal-planning process is a chance to get children involved and teach them valuable lessons about food and nutrition, Castle continues.

When children are invested in the meal-planning process, they’re less likely to think they’re being forced to eat something they don't want to eat, Yarn says, adding that the best place to start is with the shopping list. “Make a list of healthful foods and have your children circle their favorites. Use the circled foods as the base for developing a weekly menu for snacks, breakfast, lunch, and dinners,” she says.

Parents can use social media sites such as Pinterest as a way to encourage older children to choose healthful meals that look appealing, Yarn adds.

4. Take ’em food shopping. While it’s more time consuming to take the kids to the supermarket, it’s an opportunity for parents to teach them about fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry and other meats, fish, seafood, and packaged products. Kids can learn about different ingredients and how to read nutrition labels.

According to Yarn, the shopping experience is a way to “get [children] excited about the meals that are planned for the week.” She suggests parents treat the shopping list as a scavenger hunt. “Older kids can read ingredient lists and try to find processed ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, dyes, or artificial sweeteners,” she says, adding that parents can show kids how to compare prices, brands, and ingredients. “Being a savvy shopper is a life skill that they will use forever,” she says.

5. Get the kids cookin’. Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, CDN, author of the The Baby & Toddler Cookbook, recommends parents give children basic tasks such as assembling a salad while parents cook the main meal. “When kids are involved in the process, they’re learning about food and nutrition, and are more likely to eat what they’ve made,” Castle says. It can be as simple as “washing veggies, mixing ingredients, or even setting the table.”

Meal preparation can be an opportunity to try new foods without the pressure of eating a meal. In her book, Castle suggests parents use an “I'm learning to eat plate” as a tool for trying, touching, licking, or just smelling new foods. “The food on this plate is for learning, exploring, and experimenting only.”

6. Add mealtime excitement. Castle recommends using family-style meals, “which places the child in charge of what he or she will eat and how much.” Parents should set boundaries to ensure their kids make the right choices that lead to a balanced meal, she says.

Ansel suggests serving various toppings from which the children can choose to add to their meals. “There's nothing kids like more than topping their own food,” Castle says. “This can be a great strategy to get them to eat more fruits and vegetables. Set up a yogurt parfait bar by setting out bowls of low-fat yogurt, crunchy whole grain cereal, fresh berries or other sliced fresh fruit, and let kids create their own parfaits.” This can work with salads, potatoes, or meals such as tacos.

7. Dine out. Eating out also is an opportunity to experiment with new foods and perceive them in a different light. “You'll be amazed how a child who usually turns his or her nose up at vegetables is much more likely to try something new in a different setting,” Ansel says. Instead of ordering from the kids’ menu, suggest parents encourage their children to choose an entrée or appetizer from the adult menu and have them share it. “This will expose them to a variety of foods they may not get at home and may not otherwise try,” she says.

— Katie Cavuto, MS, RD, is a culinary nutritionist and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She’s the president of Healthy Bites, a company offering local and national culinary nutrition services, and the dietitian for the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team.