It’s easy to worry about your child’s health. As a generation that fills its hours on iPads instead of outdoors, it’s hard not to imagine our children growing into round, unhealthy bodies that struggle to move away from their computer screens.
We worry, though, because we care. We’re a generation of parents that have prioritized health in a way our parents didn’t – and, as it turns out, it’s actually working.
When it comes to eating, our kids are making better choices than children have in a long time. Studies show that our children are picking more healthy foods with every year, and it’s having a major effect. From 2004 to 2014, childhood obesity dropped 43% — the first major drop we’ve seen in obesity rates since we started recording them.
We’re doing a great job. We’ve focused on our children’s health, and we’re raising them with better eating habits.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, though. There are still times when getting a vegetable from the plate to your child’s mouth still seems like a battle.
It doesn’t have to be, though. There are a few tricks you might never have thought of that have been proven to get kids to eat healthier food – and that start before your child even sits down to dinner.
Let them play before dinner.
When we take our son out for a picnic, something strange happens. When we sit down to eat, he’ll nibble on a few pieces of bread like he’s rushing his way through a chore. Then he’ll ask, “Okay, I ate. Can I please go play now?”
When he comes back, though, he’s a completely different boy. We could put anything in front of him, from broccoli to spinach, and he’d gobble it up like it was a bag of candy.
As it turns out, it’s not just our son who does this, it’s everyone – and it makes a huge difference. One study testing the effects of putting recess before school lunches found that kids who play before a meal eat 54% more vegetables than kids who play after eating.
So, just let your kids run around a bit before they eat, and you’ll see those vegetables disappear.
Teach them to cook.
Our son cooked his first meal when he was 3 years old. Sure, the meal he served us was cold cut vegetables, ham sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, and he got a little help from daddy – but it made him prouder than he’d ever been.
Kids can start helping in the kitchen young, and it makes a huge difference on their eating habits. Even toddlers can slice vegetables with a plastic knife, or fill a pot with eggs and water – and it does more than just get them ready to work in the kitchen.
One study found that kids who entered cooking classes started eating more fruits and vegetables after they enrolled. Another in Alberta found that cooking even changed their tastes. The more kids helped out in the kitchen, they learned, the more they liked the taste of vegetables.
Our son eats every bite of everything he cooks, because he’s proud that he made it.
When he made his first meal, he was beaming with pride. “Do you know why I’m giving myself a thumbs up?” he asked us. “Because I cooked it!”
Put a smiley face on their food.
We’ve all labored over trying to make those beautiful carrot-and-cucumber smiley face arrangements we see on Pinterest. Let’s be honest – it takes hours, and it never comes out looking quite as good as it does online.
As it turns out, you don’t really need to go to all that effort to get kids to eat veggies. You can just put a sticker on it.
A group of schools experimented with putting happy face stickers on its healthy choices and frowny faces on high-calorie, low nutrition snacks, and it made an incredible difference. The kids all chose at least one extra healthy food choice if it had a smiley face on it.
Partly, this works because the sticker makes it more attractive – but partly, it’s because the kids get to make a choice in their decision. So, give your kids a little autonomy with a system they can understand. They’ll make better choices on their own.
Don’t praise them for eating.
When your kid takes a bite of broccoli, it’s kind of tempting to applaud. It’s so exciting that you might find yourself blurting out, “I’m so proud of you!” the second it hits their mouth. As it turns out, though, praising kids for trying new food actually hurts more than it helps.
Researchers gave kids a new type of yogurt and asked them to taste-test it. Some of the kids just ate the yogurt and went home, but another group was told how great they were every time they took a bite. When the study was over, the kids who weren’t praised had developed a taste for it and liked it more – but the kids who were praised liked it less and less every time they tried it.
When you praise your kids for their eating habits, they think you’re manipulating them. They think you’re trying to get them to do a job, and that makes the food taste terrible.
Make it look like a happy meal.
McDonalds is absolutely brilliant at marketing. Kids all around the world recognize the golden arches, and more than a few will break into tantrums if their parents don’t let them in. It’s hard to beat them – so why not copy them?
When researchers packaged healthy food in bright, cartoon-filled boxes and paired it with a little toy or a sticker, it made a huge difference in kids’ food selection. Kids chose nutritious meals three times as often when they came with a little toy, and milk sales went up 500% when it came with a sticker.
This can be an absolute life-saver when you go out to eat. Bring a colorful box a dollar store toy when you go to the healthy restaurant, and suddenly eating McDonalds won’t strike your child as such a life-or-death necessity.
Give them more time to eat.
Sometimes, I push my son to try a new food a little bit too hard. We’ll spend the first five minutes of dinner coercing, arguing, and even trying to bribe our boy into taking a taste and get nowhere. Then, ten minutes after I’ve given up and let it drop, he’ll pick up his fork and say, “Alright! I’ll try it.”
It’s not abnormal – it’s something we’ve seen in schools, too. Students in schools that give a longer lunch break usually eat healthier. If fact, when kids have to rush through a meal, they eat 12% less vegetables compared to kids who get to take their time.
Kids need time to adjust to different foods. If a food’s still strange and scary, they don’t always want to jump on it right away. If dinner lingers a little longer, though, they often find their way to the new food on their own.