How to Get Your Kids to Eat Healthy

Melissa d'Arabian shares her top six tips and tools for dealing with picky kids.
Melissa d'Arabian and kids

Ten Dollar Dinner host Melissa d'Arabian with all of her daughters Margaux (up) Charlotte (grey), Valentine (yellow) and Oceanne (tutu), as seen on Food Networks Ten Dollar Dinners, season 7.

Photo by: David Lang ©2011, Television Food Network, G.P.

David Lang, 2011, Television Food Network, G.P.

People always ask me “How do you get your kids to eat all the food that you make?” My girls are 7, 6, 5 and 5, so my answer is: “I don’t.” But, then again, that’s not my goal. To be sure, I want my kids to eat their veggies, but more than that, I want to raise budding young women who have a healthy relationship with their food. If I manage to get them to choke down a few bites of broccoli for the next few years, but then they spend their entire teen and adult lives eating junk, finally “free” from my rules, then I will not have considered myself successful. That’s just what rings true for me in my gut, and I realize not everyone shares my parenting style. My goal is simple: Impart a healthy knowledge and love for the taste, adventure and nutrition that food brings to our lives. Whenever I find myself tempted to wield my parenting muscle and try to “force” my kids to eat (ha ha ha!), I step back and remind myself that I want to pass along messages that support both the 6-year-old in front of me, and the 18-year-old she will become soon enough.

With that background, I will share my top six tips and tools for dealing with picky kids (yes, my kids have ALL had their picky phases!):

1. Let the kids pick the produce and other healthy items.

I turn grocery shopping into a bit of an outing (read: I take the kids only when I’m not rushed!). And the kids all know that they are in charge of picking produce. I hand them the plastic bag and say “OK, Margaux, you are in charge of picking the best two fennel bulbs you can find!” Amazingly, the kids never tire of being in charge of picking just about anything in life, veggies included. Now, you might expect me to tell you that Margaux will go home and eat the fennel because she picked it. Ha! Were it only so easy! My kids are long past falling for that. But I think the fact that she probably had to ask me “What does fennel look like?” and she had to search over the green veggies and spot the kale and the bok choy and the cabbage to get to the fennel means several veggies were a tiny bit demystified for her. We might talk about the fennel fronds, and maybe even taste one. Yes, she might taste the fennel when I serve it, but even if she doesn’t, she spent 15 minutes feeling good about fennel. Victory.

2. Go to the farmers’ market, for entertainment.

Turning the farmers’ market trip into a relaxed, fun family outing is one of my favorite tips. We amble leisurely from stall to stall, finding the craziest-shaped squash, or a funny, knobby tomato. The girls strike up conversations with the vendors, many of them farmers, who love to chat about their goods. We buy some, and others we don’t; no pressure. We can easily spend a couple of hours at the farmers’ market, feeling good about fresh, unprocessed food. While the prices may be a bit higher than those at the grocery store, I figure it’s still cheaper than taking everyone to the movie for two hours. And no one is falling in love with an oversized pumpkin at the cinema.

3. Serve at least two vegetables at dinner.

Kids like to feel empowered. I like to serve two veggies during dinner to give my kids the option: Would you like carrots, kale or both? They get to be involved in the decisions and I can ensure they’re eating at least one. Plus Philippe and I love eating a ton of vegetables, so it’s a great way for us to meet our own nutritional goals (and model healthy eating to the kids).

4. Have the kids “present” dinner.

At dinner every night, one of the children presents the dinner to the rest of the family, explaining what each dish is, the main ingredients and a very brief nutritional overview of the dish (my twins are 5, after all). For instance, “This is chicken cooked in a mustard sauce. Chicken is a protein that helps us build muscles.” My goal here is to develop an appreciation for the different roles of healthy foods. I realized that kids tend to group all “healthy” foods into one bucket, and I want my kids to know that just because they ate some fish (healthy!) doesn’t mean that they don’t need to get some produce in there too.

5. Make smoothies.

Our whole family loves smoothies, and it's a great breakfast or snack option (particularly awesome for on-the-go families!). I love the idea of getting raw fruits and vegetables into their (and our) bodies first thing in the morning to start their day off right. My kids’ favorite? My Green Morning Smoothie. We even made it together – just like we do at home – on an episode of Ten Dollar Dinners. They think it’s hilarious that we put spinach into the blender and that it all ends up tasting so good. In my cookbook, I share a mix-and-match list to create endless smoothie options the whole family can enjoy.

6. Let the kids help menu plan.

Every couple of weeks, I pull out a sheet of paper and let each girl plan the dinner for the entire family. The rules are: Mom has to approve the menu, and Mom is allowed to add a dish or two of her choosing to the menu. At first, the girls were suggesting crazy, imbalanced dinner menus, like my daughter Charlotte’s first: doughnuts and cinnamon cake. I gently told her how much I loved her creativity with the “breakfast for dinner” concept, but I wondered if perhaps we might be missing a protein? We talked about it, and we agreed to add an omelet to the meal, and we moved the cinnamon cake to dessert (which I made out of whole-wheat pastry flour). And, she excitedly suggested having a fruit salad instead of vegetables, while I told her I’d be adding a green salad (eggs plus salad = very French). The girls are developing a good sense for how to build a balanced meal, which sounds like the whole point of the exercise, right? But there are two additional benefits that this busy mom likes even more: I have an internal salesperson sitting at the table, selling “her” menu to her sisters. I’m totally off the hook for one meal! Second side benefit: When I am the one who makes the dinner, the girls are much more accepting of “Mom’s” menu, knowing they will get their own turn next Tuesday.

I’d love to hear from other picky-kid moms: What are some of your most successful tips? Comment below!

Catch Melissa on Drop 5 Lbs With Good Housekeeping, Saturdays at 10:30am ET. Mom of four, television host and cookbook author Melissa d’Arabian ( embodies family home cooking at its finest. With a lifelong passion for cooking and varied life experiences, Melissa naturally connects with today’s diverse families as she shares empowering food and lifestyle solutions that are part of a bigger story about how to eat well, be a responsible consumer and spend with purpose — all while putting satisfying family meals on the table every day. Follow Melissa on Twitter and Facebook.

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