How to get your kid to eat healthy if they're a picky eater

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Thinkstock

Dreena Burton is raising her three daughters on a plant-based diet, and her girls love things like chick peas and chia seeds. But even the prolific cookbook author is not immune to a problem that plagues almost every other mom and dad out there: picky eaters.

“My plant-based kids are not reaching into the fridge for raw broccoli all the time,” says Burton, author of Plant-Powered Families: Over 100 Kid-Tested, Whole-Foods Vegan Recipes. “Kids are picky, period. I don’t think there’s any parent who hasn’t experienced this.

“A little while ago I put a dish in front of my youngest daughter and she said, ‘I don’t like this.’ I said, ‘That’s interesting because you’ve never tasted it,’” Burton adds. “Everything I give her lately is yucky and stinky. I made some soup and told her it was called the Not Yucky and Stinky Soup. Sure enough, she ate it.”

To deal with picky eaters, it helps to consider what may be behind the refusal to consume certain foods. Often, it has nothing to do with food at all.

“Usually it’s an issue of power at the table,” Burton notes. “Sometimes it’s them exerting their independence.”

Plus, very young kids don’t like to sit still for long periods; they’re like little Tasmanian devils, always on the go. So not wanting to chow down on even something as apparently kid-friendly as mac ’n’ cheese could be simply because they’re antsy.

Consider these tips to get your fussy little ones full of nutritious foods.

  •  Have them try a food when they’re hungry. Too often kids fill up on snacks (fish-shaped crackers, anyone?), so it’s no wonder they’re not willing to munch on more wholesome foods. Karen Le Billon, the author of French Kids Eat Everything, says no snacks within two hours of dinner.

  • Implement the “no complaining about your food” rule. Le Billon gets credit for this one, too.

  • Be patient. It’s been reported that kids need to try a food more than a dozen times before they come to like it. Keep at it.

  • Avoid substitutions. Offer a young’un a hot dog instead of that filet of salmon once and you’re doomed. Be firm. “I’ll say ‘This is our meal. This is what we’re eating. There’s no other option,’” Burton says. However, she says a modified technique is to offer kids something they do like with something they may not. One of her kids never liked spinach, but she began eating it willingly once she put it on potatoes, bread, and pizza.

  • Get kids involved in everything to do with meals. That means having them flip through cookbooks to pick recipes, write up a shopping list, pick out groceries, and help make the meal. Even better if you grow your own veggies and they’re able to cut lettuce leaves, snip fresh herbs, pull carrots, and pick peas. Depending on their age, they may be able to peel carrots, stir soup, measure flour, or flip burgers. They may be much more open to what’s on their plate if they what went into making it.

  • Try different textures. Sometimes, it’s not the flavour that’s turning kids off but the way a food feels in their mouth. If they don’t like lentils, beans, or chick peas, purée them or use them in a dip or spread. Or add something they do like to help alter the texture: “For a while one of my daughters didn’t like the texture of rice. She loved avocado, so I would make guacamole and stir it into the rice and then she’d eat it,” Burton says. “Or you can make balls out of rice purée and add a little seasoning.”

  • Try new cooking techniques. Your kids don’t like cauliflower? Try roasting it. They frown at the sight of red peppers? Grill them. Roasting and grilling draw out vegetables’ natural sweetness and soften bitter flavours. Burton suggests trying these methods with eggplant, Brussels sprouts, green beans, asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms, winter squash, and other veggies.

  • Season it up. You don’t want to rely on ketchup at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but remember kids tend to love certain condiments and seasonings, including tamari, cinnamon, maple syrup, nutritional yeast, sea salt, and some vinegars. “A little sprinkle or drizzle can go a long way,” Burton says.

  • Make smoothies. Young palates may simply not be ready for the taste of kale. Get nutrient-dense foods, including greens and chia or hemp seeds (which are abundant in omega-3s) into their diets by blending them with fruit and yogurt.

  • Hop onboard yourself. Try new foods as a family, and approach it as an adventure.

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