Before I became a mom, I swore that I would have a child who ate everything, and I would never be “one of those moms” who serves chicken nuggets and grilled cheese sandwiches on repeat. As a registered dietitian, I knew how important a healthy, varied diet is to supporting a child’s growing body and mind. Pre-children, when I watched moms struggling to get their kids to eat anything but fruit snacks, I would wonder why it was so hard to get kids to enjoy nourishing foods. They should gleefully eat everything that is offered to them and be excited to try new foods, right?
Once I became a mom, I finally understood that the struggle is real. Kids can be challenging when it comes to eating a variety of good-for-you foods. When my daughter was a toddler, she chowed down on foods like asparagus and sweet potatoes without complaint. But as she got older, she formed her own opinion and loudly voiced her displeasure when I dared to feed her a green vegetable or whole-grain pasta. Slowly but surely, I started getting into the chicken nuggets/grilled cheese rotation and knew that something had to change.
Kids need nutrients like omega 3s, choline, and calcium for a variety of health reasons. I knew that if I put on my dietitian and mom hat at the same time, I could create some solutions that would help my daughter eat and enjoy nutrient-rich foods without protest. Here are three tips that worked in my house and may work in yours too!
1. Try Smart Swaps.
Kids who eat seafood can reap some amazing benefits, including better performance in school, better quality sleep, and improved immune response. But getting kids to voluntarily eat seafood can sometimes feel like pulling teeth. And good luck trying to motivate your little one to finish up her fish fillet to boost her IQ or help support strong bones. Somehow that doesn’t resonate with young children. Despite my best efforts, my daughter refused to eat any seafood until I started swapping out ground beef for a mild fish like farmed salmon in classic kid-friendly recipes like tacos.
Here’s why this worked. She loves tacos! By choosing a fish with a mild flavor and smooth texture, it blended in with the familiar taco toppings and didn’t overwhelm her. When introducing seafood, the key is to serve it as an ingredient in a dish, not plain. I choose farmed salmon from Chile because it contains no antibiotics or mercury and is affordable. Also, farmed salmon tends to have higher levels of brain-boosting omega 3 fatty acids compared to other fish varieties. Whether I use it frozen or fresh, my daughter will eat it on a hamburger bun, in tacos, as a quesadilla filling, and even added to scrambled eggs. She is happy to eat foods that are similar to her “regular” foods, and mama is happy that she is getting a boost of healthy fats, protein, and hard-to-find vitamins, like vitamin D.
2. Invest in an Air Fryer.
I will admit that I am a sucker for new kitchen toys, and an air-fryer did not disappoint. Like many kids (and adults), my daughter tends to prefer fried foods over baked and grilled. Who can blame her? That satisfying crunch of a French fry or fried chicken nugget is hard to beat. But living off of fried foods isn’t good for anyone, especially kids.
Air fryers are a magical appliance that makes food taste fried without being submerged in fat. Don’t ask me how it works, but it works. I love to use the air fryer to introduce new vegetables and meats to my family. So far, the air fryer has successfully added pork chops, green beans, butternut squash, and zucchini to the (growing) list of foods that everyone will eat.
Using an air fryer, I am able to serve up crunchy “fries” using russet and sweet potatoes, as well as sliced carrots, green beans, and even pickles. Serving them with a dip like a homemade ranch or ketchup adds to the pleasure because kids love dipping food into sauces. My daughter happily crunches away on carrot “fries”, and I have less mom-guilt knowing that my daughter is getting some important nutrients into her growing body.
3. Make Food Fun.
My daughter loves to have a “party platter” for lunch or dinner. I love that it involves little-to-no cooking and is a great vehicle for trying new foods and customizing with nutrients she may be lacking. For example, if I’m trying to boost her dairy intake, there might be a Greek yogurt-based dip or a cheese stick on the platter. If she needs more protein and healthy fat, peanut butter on whole-grain crackers or rolled up turkey slices often make an appearance. My rule of thumb is one fruit, one veggie, a whole grain, and a protein, served with a glass of milk. The trick is to always include one component that is a less familiar food to encourage variety. Here are some of our favorite combos:
- Whole-grain crackers, turkey roll-ups, red bell pepper slices, hummus, and apple slices
- Toothpick “skewers” with grape tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, cucumber slices with homemade ranch dressing, and whole-grain pretzels.
- Fresh pineapple chunks with vanilla yogurt dip, peanut butter cracker sandwiches, and baby carrots
There is something inherently fun about the snack or “party” platters and it is the perfect solution for busy weeknights!
Getting kids to eat a balanced diet is a challenge that even registered dietitians experience. Instead of admitting defeat and investing in a Costco-sized box of mac and cheese, testing out some out-of-the-box kitchen hacks can help your child meet important nutrition needs with little stress and frustration. It may take some trial-and-error, but you will surely find a way to get key nutrients into your child’s diet with a little creativity and know-how.