How do we get kids to eat more nourishing foods? It all comes down to the parents. The eating habits they model have a huge influence on their children.

For starters, regardless of what we hear in popular media, parents should believe it’s possible for their child to eat nutritious food— as the saying goes, “If you believe it, you can achieve it”.

Too often we see parents put their children into the category of a “picky eater”. This label then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without realizing it, parents of “picky eaters” slowly stop offering a full variety of foods, believing that their child will never eat them—they feel it’s a lost cause. However, this is a mistake. Taste buds constantly change and evolve throughout childhood and life. A so-called picky eater can still learn to be open to new tastes.

Most children go through a picky phase when they are two or three. This is more about wanting to make decisions (asserting independence) and not the decision itself. By age three or four they are past this phase, so labeling them as a picky eater forever is doing them a disservice. The wise parent will continue to serve and eat all sorts of different tastes and textures. In this way, they  can start to develop their curiosity by getting the whole family to try new foods.

So, it’s easy to tell parents to introduce a variety of foods, but does it really work? Research shows that it can take ten or more exposures to a food before children feel comfortable and accept it. And don’t give up—keep offering the new food at different meals in different ways without pressuring your kids to like it or even taste it. In addition, avoid the word “healthy” when possible. Healthy does not “sell” to a child. And in fact, labeling food as something healthy can actually turn a child off of a particular food. Food should be food. Food tastes good. Healthy food is bland and boring. This is the perception. In truth, food that is good for you if cooked right tastes great.

You can use “healthy” in a soft way up until about age ten, but after that it shuts more doors than it opens.

Here are some ways to make eating nourishing foods fun and easy:

  • Parents, be role models, and eat nourishing foods. Your children are watching carefully so skip the junk food and fast food. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Have meals together, without any distractions. Music is fine, but skip the television/video/smartphones. This allows everyone to focus on the food and the relationships at the table. Think of this as early training for “mindful” eating.
  • Don’t make a big deal in public about what your child eats or doesn’t eat—save that conversation for behind closed doors. This is often when “picky eater” issues start. For the most part, “picky eaters” are created and perpetrated by parents who draw too much attention to whether kids are trying new foods. When labeled as a picky eater, they behave accordingly, rather than quietly trying something new even though they first said no. If they see their parents eating and enjoying it, they will be curious. Remember that children need to try foods multiple times before they decide they like them.
  • Offer a variety of nourishing foods for kids to try, and expect to have left-overs. Chef Marshall does batch cooking for his family on the weekends, serves food family-style from bowls on the table so it’s easy to sample things, and they eat what was cooked throughout the week, adding other dishes as needed as the week goes on.

Parents, walk the walk yourself. Kids do what they see, not what they hear.  Children can pick up on their parent’s attitudes towards food, both positive and negative. This means you should avoid labeling a food “good” or “bad”. Even if you don’t like a particular food, try to remain neutral towards the food and offer it to your child as you would any other. Along the same lines it is also important to not completely restrict “treats”. Some studies have found that severe restriction of certain foods causes children to overeat those foods when given the opportunity. Modeling good food behavior means eating in balance most of the time but also enjoying special foods on special occasions.

Remember: nourishing is a lifelong goal and big changes don’t happen overnight most of the time. Think baby steps.