7 recommendations for encouraging children to eat healthier
Frode Selvaag, Chef from Norway, Director of “Dibber Meal and Food Services” (known as “CreaKids” in Latvia)
Almost all parents want their children to eat healthier, to replace unhealthy and sugary snacks with fruits, vegetables, or other healthy snacks in their daily diet. However, introducing such habits is not always easy. Allowing a child to choose their meal or not, limiting the consumption of unhealthy snacks, encouraging children to try new flavours, and persuading them to eat even beet or broccoli soup – how can these challenges be tackled?
Learn what your child enjoys eating at preschool
Parents can encourage children to try new foods and flavours by gradually changing their usual taste preferences. The more open parents are to new flavours, the more readily children will accept them. To incorporate something new into their daily routine, it’s worth occasionally looking at the preschool menu. For instance, if the preschool introduces a new dish that the child enjoys, why not prepare it at home as well? Additionally, the preschool menu is created in accordance with regulations to ensure it’s simple, healthy, and suitable for children. Currently, there’s a vast variety of food options available worldwide, including many unhealthy fast-food solutions. Therefore, seemingly simple dishes that might appear mundane to us are often the most suitable for our children.
Involving them in the cooking process
To encourage children to eat healthier, talk to them about food, what they’d like to taste, and why. If a child suggests a healthy idea for a meal, within reason, support it—of course, this doesn’t apply to a suggestion of having only candy for dinner. At the same time, every meal shouldn’t be left entirely to the child’s choice. When asking a child whether they want soup or fish, or something else, there’s a risk of getting the response that they don’t want anything from the options. The more we indulge children with extensive freedom of choice, the harder it will be to persuade them to opt for the healthier choice. In preschools, we often encounter very selective children. To address this, we involve them in the process of creating or cooking the menu, invite them to the kitchen, explain why a particular dish is being made, thus making them ambassadors to some extent. If a child has helped in the cooking process, they’ll be more willing to enjoy the respective meal.
Green Hulk soup or broccoli for tree climbing
Encouraging a child to try a new dish, it’s recommended to use what’s called “taste bridges.” Choose a product the child knows and likes, and incorporate it into the new dish, telling the child that their favourite ingredient is included. It’s also important to explain why vegetables or fruits are healthy, in a way that children can understand. For preschool-aged children, complex terms like carbohydrates and proteins might not resonate, but, for example, looking at broccoli in the shape of a tree, we can explain to them that eating broccoli will make them better at climbing trees, which is much easier for them to grasp. We can also use familiar colour associations with food – a green vegetable soup can become the “Green Hulk” soup, giving strength, and a pink beet soup can turn into the special “Barbie World” soup, and so on.
“Hide” the foods that the child doesn’t like
Experience shows that children are much more likely to eat when the food on the plate is separated rather than mixed together. It’s important for children to see the components and choose combinations themselves. While various stir-fries might be very appealing to us adults, children will prefer separate carrots, peas, meat, sauce, or other components on their plate. On the other hand, if you want your child to enjoy a soup with a variety of ingredients, it’s better to make it a thick soup by blending all the components together. In fact, thick soups and smoothies are excellent ways to “hide” foods that children might not like but are very healthy and necessary. For example, in a vibrant berry smoothie, you can sneak in some leftover oatmeal, while in a thick soup based on a favoured ingredient, you can incorporate other vegetables that aren’t typically favoured.
Don’t focus on foods that aren’t favoured
There are certain foods that many children don’t like, such as onions. Often, it’s due to the texture of onions, so you can try varying the cooking method, like caramelizing or roasting them. If we focus on what children don’t like, we might inadvertently make our children selective eaters. I have two sons, and we don’t offer them multiple options for each meal in our daily routine.
Fast food as an exception, not an everyday choice
When providing the opportunity to choose, it’s important to keep in mind that a child will often opt for what’s known as “industrial flavour” – items like French fries, dumplings, chicken nuggets, and the like. These are foods prepared with various flavour enhancers to make us want more and more. Of course, this doesn’t mean that such foods should be completely excluded from everyday meals or prohibited, but for example, soda or French fries should be a rare treat, not an everyday staple. I really appreciate Latvian preschools or schools that offer children compote after meals – it satisfies the desire for something sweet without resorting to chocolate, providing the necessary sweetness in a much healthier way.
Controlled portions or the opportunity to choose the amount of food
When discussing whether to limit the size of a child’s portions at home or let them serve their own food onto their plate, it’s important to highlight that this depends on how the meal is organized and what is being served. If there’s a fast-food type of dish for lunch or dinner, then it’s best not to let the child eat as much as they want. However, if it’s a healthy and balanced meal, allowing the child to serve their own portions is a way to learn how to evaluate how much they can eat in one sitting, and so on.
Children’s preferences and favourite flavours are greatly influenced by their parents and their eating habits. By involving children in the meal planning process for the entire week, going shopping together, preparing meals together, and using flavours they already know and love, we can gradually encourage them to try something new and move towards healthier choices step by step.