Getting Kids to Eat a Healthy Diet–Relax!

Mothers trying to get their kids to eat is such a universal stereotype, I’m pretty sure it’s hardwired in all women’s brains.

Long before humans farmed, we were hunter-gatherers. So, too, were our direct ancestors, Homo erectus, for nearly 2 million years. I’m also pretty sure for all those eons of food insecurity, women pushed their kids to eat as much as possible whenever food was available.

In 1939, Dr. Clara Davis, a Canadian pediatrician, presented the results of her longitudinal study on self-selection diets of young children. Entering the study as recently weaned infants, they were given 33 healthy foods to choose to eat at each meal for several years.

While the children chose different foods from one another (and different from the recommended diet at the time), they all ate similar proportions of proteins, carbohydrate and fats. Overweight kids slimmed down, underweight kids gained weight. One child with severe rickets chose to drink cod liver oil.

The takeaway? Present your children with healthy food options and they will eat a balanced diet. Maybe not each day, but over time.

Small children

For infants who are weaning off breast milk or formula, all food is new. With my first baby, I introduced rice cereal when he was 6 months old. He refused to eat it, or anything else, and exclusively breastfed until he was a year old.

He then became an adventurous young eater. My friends from South Asia marveled at toddler Claude eating spicy curries their own children wouldn’t try. (Indian cooking remains a favorite of Claude’s and for many years we took him to the Saffron Patch for his birthday.)

Some small children strike on a food they enjoy and then want it all the time. For months, toddler Jules wanted chicken. Always thin, I used to call Jules my “air fern” because he ate so little. If he wanted chicken, I made him chicken. Then he switched to eggs and for months, that was his primary protein.

Kids eat free at Macaroni Grill on Mondays and Tuesdays

Vegetables are a hard sell with most children. You can sneak it in them pureed when they are toddlers, but they won’t eat baby food forever. Again, find what vegetable they do like and go deep. Lyra loves broccoli right now. We give it to her nearly every day.

School-age children

Every kid I’ve ever met loves carbohydrates. Here are some tricks to get them to eat something that isn’t white and processed:

Give them false choices. For example: “You can have green beans or broccoli with your hamburger.” And then tell them no dessert until the vegetables are finished. If they leave anything on the plate, I prefer the protein over the vegetable.

Give them vegetables first. Hugo was my pickiest eater. I’d often make him eat five baby carrots or peanut-butter filled celery before I’d give him the rest of his lunch.

Hide the vegetables. My kids think spaghetti sauce is thick and stew-like. Ours always includes sautéed onions and garlic, grated zucchini and whatever other vegetables I can dice small enough so they won’t know it’s in there. Even the universally kid-abhorred mushrooms can slip by undetected if small enough.

Buy healthy carbohydrate alternatives. We get Ronzini SuperGreens pasta at Acme. It tastes fine, but has a lower glycemic index and more fiber that white pasta. Whole wheat pasta is also a healthier option, but I don’t like how gummy it is.

Always have fruit available. Our kitchen counter has a bowl of washed apples (Jules easily eats 10 pounds of apples a week) and a second bowl of other fruit. Clementines are great because little hands can peel them on their own.

My kids never have to ask to eat fruit, though I wish they’d always finish it. Sometimes in the bowl I find an apple with a trail made by a small mouth. She came, she nibbled, she returned the apple to its kin.


So far, all the teens I’ve raised have been boys. When Claude and Hugo were very little, a woman who taught me many parenting skills warned: When they are teenagers, you will not believe that a gallon of milk will be gone in one afternoon.

Around age 13, most boys experience a big growth spurt. Twice, once with Claude and once with Jules, they came down for breakfast taller than when they went to bed the night before. Their bones may ache, they often need more sleep. And, wow, do they eat.

When Claude was in high school, we called him the “Gaping Maw.” I double or triple most recipes not only to have enough for one meal, but also for leftovers. When Claude was growing, there were never any leftovers.

One benefit of teenage boys is we rarely throw away food. It all gets eaten.

Though 17, Jules is still growing. My onetime air fern, who had such light bones I carried him on my hip until he was 6, is now 6 foot 5. He’s a really good kid, but I can’t trust him with food I don’t want him to eat. Even if I tell him not to eat it and even if he promises he won’t, he still will. And there went the box of Malley’s Bordeaux Max gave me for Valentine’s.

When he was in the eighth grade, picky Hugo stopped eating carbohydrates. His portions became smaller and he rarely finished what was on his plate. I became worried that he was developing an eating disorder, but he vehemently denied it.

I took him to our pediatrician and also met with an eating disorder specialist. Hugo pulled through and later admitted he had been fasting in an unhealthy way, but didn’t believe he had an eating disorder.

Estimates are that only 5 to 15 percent of people in the U.S. with eating disorders are male. Because it is so uncommon in boys and men, it can be harder to detect because it might not occur to a parent that their son has an eating disorder.

If you have any inkling a child has an eating disorder, contact a health care professional immediately.

Today, Claude and Hugo mostly cook for themselves and regularly call me for recipes of various dishes they ate growing up. When he was in middle school, Jules became a fabulous cook and baker. He made his first salmon almandine at age 12. He’s too busy now to cook elaborate meals.

I miss those days and hope they eventually return.


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