By Tanni Haas, Ph.D. | Contributor
We’ve all been there: despite our very best efforts – and cajoling – our kids simply won’t eat healthy, home-cooked food. How about trying a new strategy and making healthy eating a fun activity? Here are some fun ways to inspire the kids:
Dinner for breakfast
Everyone knows about “breakfast for dinner,” but have you ever considered “dinner for breakfast”? “Well, why not,” says Shannon Crocker, a dietician. “If it was a healthy, balanced meal last night, it’s still a healthy, balanced meal this morning.” If your kids’ favorite food is pizza, serve mini-pizzas with healthy filings like tomato sauce, ham, pineapple, and cheese.
Get some of your kids’ friends or classmates together and start a cooking club on afternoons or weekends. You could hire a local culinary student to teach basic cooking skills. “Children are more likely to eat healthy foods if the presentation is appetizing and if they have a hand in preparation,” says Patti Ghezzi of Greater Good Communication, a non-profit that focuses on nutrition and food.
Have the kids “roll” their own food, sushi-style. They can roll whole wheat tortillas with ham and cheese or peanut butter and banana. They can also roll pizzas with shredded mozzarella and tomato sauce. The possibilities are endless. “Kids love these fun snacks, and they’re packed with protein, potassium, and filling fiber,” says Angelina Sickora, a dietician.
Take a bunch of vegetables and have the kids make the funniest faces possible on the kitchen counter. Hint: peas are good for eyes. “This is a great way to increase children’s sensory experiences (and then probably acceptance) with veggies in a fun and entertaining environment,” says Karina Savage, a dietician.
Have the kids create a meal that includes items from all four food groups: fruits and vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. “Assembling a balanced plate is one of the most practical skills you can teach a child,” says Shannon Doleac, a nutritionist, “and creating plates can become fun nutrition activities for kids.”
Guess the fruit or vegetable
Put a bunch of fruits and vegetables in a bag, have the kids close their eyes, and ask them to choose one thing. The goal is to guess what it is based on how it feels and smells. “Exploring food with all of their senses moves them closer to trusting and eating that food,” says Ms. Savage.
Dessert as main course
Put a small portion of dessert on their plates, just enough to keep them hungry and eat the main course. “You’ll be surprised when your child suddenly takes a bite of dessert along with a bite of something else, instead of just gobbling up the dessert,” says Jennifer House, a nutritionist.
Guess the fruit
Have your kids guess which fruit you’re thinking of by describing its color, shape, texture, and taste. “It’s a great way to have fun while promoting healthy eating in kids,” says Ms. Savage.
Follow their passion
Kids have different passions. Some are interested in certain countries or cultures, others in specific colors or textures. “What’s your child’s current obsession?” asks Katie Kick, the author of Good Life Eats. “Incorporate that into their food.” Kids are more likely to take an interest in what they eat if it aligns with their passions.
How about having the kids collect all their favorite, healthy recipes and make a book out of them? For added fun, each recipe could have a key ingredient starting with a different letter. “Creating your own family recipe book is always a memorable project,” says Ms. Doleac.
Take a bunch of vegetables, put them on the kitchen counter, and ask the kids to make a “plant person.” “Once you’re done,” says Ms. Savage, “it’s a great chance to ask the kids if they want to eat some of their plant person.”
Let them dip
For a healthy afternoon snack, give the kids some food they can dip: fruits and vegetables, whole wheat crackers, or pita. The dip could be fat-free yogurt, salsa, or guacamole. “A great dip makes everything better!” says Aracely Rojas, a dietician.
Plant a garden
If you have an outdoor garden, dedicate a small area for the kids to grow their own fruits and vegetables. If not, grow a small kitchen garden. A hydroponic (water) garden is a lot of fun. “Kids are invested and interested in foods they’ve watched grow in a way that’s otherwise hard to replicate,” says Alisha Grogan, a pediatric occupational therapist.
Bake something wholesome
Kids love to bake. Have them help you make a loaf of bread with whole wheat flour or a banana bread with some overripe bananas. “Making pasta or gnocchi is another fun option,” says Ms. Savage, “but be prepared for the mess!”
Cut out images of food
Gather old magazines and have the kids cut out images of all the farm-fresh foods they can find. “This is one of the best nutrition activities for discussing whole foods and clean eating,” Ms. Doleac says, “and why they’re an important base to build our meals from.”
… to make a meal
Ask the kids to use some of those items to create and prepare that evening’s dinner. “These simple activities,” says Ms. Savage, “are the perfect way to introduce healthy eating to kids.”
About Tanni Haas, Ph.D.
Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences, and Disorders at The City University of New York – Brooklyn College.