15 (Sneaky!) Ways to Get Good Food into Your Kids
1. Make It a Game
Kelly Parthen, co-author of Bean Appetit: Hip & Healthy Ways to Have Fun with Food and owner of a healthy kids' café, uses a game called Bean-Go, a tasty twist on bingo. Make a card filled with pictures of fruits and veggies you'd like your child to try. Cross off each new food until you get five in a row, or play "blackout" (every square crossed off) for an even bigger reward of your choice.
2. Let Them Choose Their Weapon
Celebrity chef Cat Cora knows her way around the kitchen, but that doesn't mean her four boys always love what she makes. Her trick: She lets the boys pick the vegetable side for dinner. "If they have a say in what I serve, they're much more likely to eat it," she says. "As long as they're getting their vegetables, I don't care what it is!"
3. Tell Stories Starring Good Food
When her kids were little, Suzie Kane of Los Angeles made up stories about the stomach's being the "land" that the food traveled to. "We had many adventurous meals where various bites went looking for their long-lost (or perhaps recently captured) friends or relatives," she says.
Even a cool name is irresistible: In a recent study preschoolers given "X-Ray Vision Carrots" ate nearly twice as many as they did when given simply "carrots."
4. Use Reverse Psychology
Karen Graf Chambers of Manito, Illinois, used to tell her children, "Only big kids like that!" in hopes they'd want to taste a particular vegetable. It worked! "They would salivate at the chance to try whatever I was making," she says.
Acupuncturist and herbalist Kristen Burris of Eagle, Idaho, snuck seaweed flakes onto her boys' popcorn by asking, "Boys, when I make your popcorn tonight, do you want the special sprinkles?" "They always responded with a resounding 'Yes!'" she says.
5. Hide the Good Stuff
Sarah Hollman's son insisted he didn't like tomatoes or onions, but he never even noticed when she cut them up small enough to be unrecognizable, the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Motherboard Mom reports.
Jennifer Margulis, editor of Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love, purees zucchini and green beans in the food processor and adds the blend to spaghetti sauce. "Not even my husband, who hates zucchini, is the wiser," she says.
6. Offer a Pinch of Spice
Plain steamed veggies are boring. Trina Tschappat of Westport, South Dakota, pulls out different seasonings like lemon pepper and seasoned salt and lets her son pick one to sprinkle on his vegetables (in moderation, of course).
7. Pretend You're Serving Something Brand-New
"My boys gagged on their broccoli until I stopped boiling and started steaming, and they refused to try beans until I put them on nachos," says Meagan Francis, author of The Happiest Mom. "Don't make a big deal when your child dislikes a food. Just try serving it another way and act as if it's a totally new, completely original dish."
8. Pull Out the Old "Choice" Trick
This old-school psych trick works on children of all ages: Instead of asking, "Do you want peas?" say "Do you want peas or carrots?" says Seif-Eldeine Och of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. "The child thinks he or she is the one making the decision."
9. Desperate Times Call for...Vegetables
Everyone seems to be hungriest right before dinner. Suzy Buglewicz, a mom of teenagers in Golden, Colorado, puts carrots, celery, and cucumber slices on the table with a bowl of dip about an hour before dinner. "Within minutes the veggies and dip are gone, and my kids are happy," she says.
10. Let Frozen Veggies Be a Treat
Sandra Hume of Manter, Kansas, and Brandy Brow of Vernon, Vermont, discovered the "raw" appeal of frozen veggies. Their children will eat a whole bowl of frozen peas or corn. "One of the best things I did was say 'Yes' when one of my kids asked for a taste of frozen veggies as I was getting ready to cook them. I caught myself almost saying 'No' because they were frozen, but then I realized what he was asking—to eat some vegetables! Now, they often ask to eat their dinner veggies frozen. They taste really different, and more importantly, the kids eat them," Brow says.
11. Monkey See, Monkey Do
Kate Wheeler, a Los Angeles mom who blogs about food at Savour Fare, theorizes that kids don't like vegetables because parents treat them as undesirable "healthy" food. "Your kid will pick up on that, trust me," she says. Wheeler's trick: Find vegetables you like, experiment with tasty preparations, and let your children see you eating vegetables with enjoyment and gusto. "That's a big step to help them follow suit," she says.
12. Give Them Good Food, Not Empty Calories
You can't force your children to eat, but you can control what's available to eat in the house, says Jen Singer, author of the Stop Second-Guessing Yourself guides to parenting. "So that when your child gets hungry, make sure you have plenty of good food on hand instead of empty-calorie snacks. The choice is his or hers, but it's necessarily healthy."
13. Use Fat as Flavor
Douglas Scott, a dad in Miami, says coaxing his kids into choosing vegetables over fruit is a challenge, but adding a small amount of fat—butter or olive oil on cooked veggies or Ranch dressing on raw—helps sweeten the deal. The USDA recommends just small amounts of fat in a healthful diet, but fat actually helps absorb certain good-for-you vitamins (A, D, K, and E).
14. Inspire Them
Stephanie Meade, CEO and founder of InCultureParent.com, was shocked at how well her husband's trick worked on their girls: "He tells them if they eat their dinner, they'll get stronger, and they oblige excitedly," she reports. "He always feels their arm muscles to encourage them while they're eating. Now after they take a bite of dinner (which they're sometimes reluctant to eat), they'll jump up and run to their dad, holding out their arms for him to feel."
15. Bring Out the Accessories
So simple, it's genius: Carol Frazey, author of The Fit School Newsletter blog, uses fancy toothpicks to tempt kids into eating fruit. "I've found if you put frilly toothpicks or little cocktail umbrellas into pieces of fruit, kids eat significantly more. It's amazing!" she says.