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How To Motivate Your Child To Eat Healthy: Discover Fun & Effective Ways

May 9, 2023
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    Eating healthy, balanced meals throughout the day for proper nutrition is a goal many parents have for their kids. However, it is not uncommon for families to experience difficulties such as getting kids to eat vegetables and other healthy foods. In some cases, your child's diet may even be a source of stress in the home. So, how do you get your kids to eat well?

    In this article, we'll talk about how to approach and instill healthy eating habits in kids through various strategies, such as making it fun, eating regular family meals, and cooking together.

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    How Do I Get My Child Excited About Healthy Eating?

    The goal is to raise kids with not just healthy eating habits but a good relationship with food who can listen to their bodies and self-regulate. With this in mind, not lecturing kids about healthy eating is critical. It is also ideal not to label foods as good or bad, junk food or healthy food, and so on, in front of children. This can have a number of effects on kids: Desiring foods that are off-limits or labeled as "junk food" more, increased pickiness, all-or-nothing thinking, resistance to healthy foods, shame, and more. Small shifts and a gentle approach can help families make the most significant, long-lasting changes. 

    Use these tips to improve kids eating habits and get them excited about healthy eating. First, let's talk about how Joon can help.

    Try Joon To Help 

    Using Joon is an excellent way to make an array of healthy habits fun for children. Designed for kids with ADHD and related disorders ages 6-12+, Joon is a to-do app and reward system that doubles as a game. Here's how it works:

    To start, parents install Joon Parent App and make a personalized task list for their children. You can add unlimited goals and activities, such as homework, chores, eating meals and snacks, going to sports practice, or any other part of your child's routine. Children connect with a separate app called Joon Pet Game. Upon completing tasks, kids get rewards that allow them to take care of a cute virtual pet of their choice (called a Doter) and move forward in the game.

    90% of children who use Joon finish all the tasks their parents assign, and users often say that Joon has improved their parent-child relationship. Joon is rated an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars in the App Store, with over 4k reviews.

    Click here to try it for free.

    Try To Make It Fun

    If you want to make healthier choices more appealing and motivate your kids to be healthier, presentation matters. The way you present new foods can be the difference between, for example, getting a child to eat fruit vs. having your child push it away. Here are some ideas to try:

    • Using cookie cutters or utensils to make foods like fruits, vegetables, or sandwiches into kid-friendly shapes like hearts, dinosaurs, or stars.
    • Make it into a face, animal, or another appealing shape. For example, you might put peanut butter on toast and make a face on top with fruit like blueberries and bananas. Or, you might arrange the food on a snack plate to look like a rainbow.
    • Use fun plates, utensils, or boxes to present food. For example, bento boxes for kids, plates or spoons, forks with favorite animals or cartoon characters, etc.
    • Turn healthy foods into "finger foods." For example, you may put peanut butter and banana inside tortillas made from whole grains and slice the wrap into bite-sized circles so kids can pick it up. Or, you might make a classic snack, like ants on a log.

    A quick web search can help you find thousands of visual representations of healthy food for kids. Sometimes, you'll also find ideas on Pinterest or in parenting magazines.

    Make a Schedule

    Eating regular meals and snacks is an important healthy eating practice. For most kids, this means eating every 2-3 or 3-4 hours (depending on their age and needs). When you make your child’s daily routine, factor in time for regular meals and snacks. Don't force them to clean their plate - that's never ideal. Instead, present food at scheduled times daily and let them decide what they want from it. Eating regularly can have many positive effects, including blood sugar stability, better focus, and an increase in mood regulation.

    Try Smaller Portions

    Sometimes, large portions can be overwhelming for kids. If your child says they're "not hungry" or won't eat from their plate, try serving smaller portions. That way, they can ask for seconds if they want, but the meal or snack will feel less intimidating.

    Allow Treats And Fun Foods

    Foods like french fries and ice cream don't need to be cut out entirely. In fact, making these part of a meal plan in moderation can be very beneficial in helping kids eat well. Why? It's often the case that children are drawn toward things that are off-limits; a balanced approach where healthy options and treats are all part of the menu neutralizes food. At the end of the day, always remind yourself that one meal is just one meal. All foods fit!

    Present New Foods Multiple Times

    Let's say that you have picky eaters. When you want them to try something new, do you present it once and then give up? While you should never force kids to eat something they don't like, kids may be more apt to try new foods once they've seen them on their plates multiple times. Ideally, alongside already-liked foods. For example, you might add a couple of broccoli florets alongside an already-liked food, like macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes and chicken nuggets. If they don't try it that day, it's okay. They might the next time or the time after that. Of course, there will always be foods kids don't grow to enjoy, but it can be beneficial to give kids some time to get used to the idea of something new. 

    Frame "No" Differently

    Despite meal planning for your family, you'll probably find that your kids ask for something else, like takeout or cookies, when it's time to eat dinner at least every once in a while - sometimes, even if everything for the meal is ready to go. This can be frustrating, but the way you communicate it makes a difference. Again, language matters when it comes to kids and food.

    One way to phrase "no" firmly but kindly is to say, "That sounds great, but it's not on the menu today. Let's add a cookie to your snack tomorrow/after dinner/etc." Or, "Maybe we can get that at the store to go with your snack this week."

    Try Dips

    Vegetables and fruits still have nutrients when eaten with dips or dressings! Often, this is the key to getting both younger and older children to go for foods like fruits and vegetables. As an added bonus, dips with fat, like hummus and most salad dressings, aid the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K). Eating fruits and vegetables with other fat sources, like nuts, has the same effect.

    Make Healthy Snacks Available

    To encourage healthy eating, keep fresh fruit and vegetables prepared and easy for kids to grab whenever they want. Set aside some time to wash and cut fruits and vegetables each week, such as apple slices, broccoli florets, and carrots. Keep other healthy snacks, like whole grain crackers and popcorn, at home, too.

    One of the reasons kids, teens, and adults may gravitate toward unhealthy snacks is that they're easy to access (similar to fast food). Most people find that they're more apt to eat nutrient-dense foods like vegetables and fruit if they're readily available, so this is advantageous for the whole family.

    Eat Together As A Family

    Did you know there are evidence-based benefits to having family meals? It's true! Research correlates regular family meals with a number of positive effects, including but not limited to a lower chance of disordered eating, depression, and substance use. If you're wondering what counts as a family meal, it's any meal the family eats together. Most nights, family meals will probably mean eating a home-cooked meal. Other times, it'll mean sitting down together for your favorite takeout food. Either way, you will get the benefits.

    Don't Bribe Or Reward Kids With Food

    Although parents who bribe their kids to eat healthy food have good intentions, it's more likely to have the opposite effect of what you want. Bribing, fighting, or forcing kids to eat certain foods is more likely to lead them to associate negative feelings with those foods than anything else. Similarly, rewarding kids with food can have unfavorable consequences. Eating should be a positive experience but a morally neutral one. There are many alternative ways to reward a child without food.

    Get Children Involved In Making Food

    Getting kids involved in cooking is crucial. Whether you have older kids or younger children, there's most likely a job you can assign to your child while making a meal. Cooking with kids matters for many reasons, including but not limited to the following:

    • Cooking promotes the variety necessary for a healthy diet. If you have a picky eater or a child who doesn't want to eat fruits, vegetables, or other healthy foods, getting them involved in food preparation makes children way more likely to try something new.
    • Cooking is an opportunity to teach kids life skills. When you make nutritious meals together, kids will have the skills to do it themselves later on. It's also an opportunity to teach kids math if they need to measure or count ingredients for a recipe!
    • Fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. There are a lot of ways to boost fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination in kids. Everyday activities like cooking or baking are one of them. For this reason, you might assign kids jobs in the kitchen, like mixing, chopping, or even squeezing foods (like lemons).

    As an added bonus, cooking is a great way for parents and their kids to bond. With consistency, patience, and effort, getting kids to eat healthy is possible. Talk to your child's doctor or another provider, such as a registered dietician, for individualized guidance if you have any concerns about their nutrition.


    Dr. Brittany Ferri, PhD

    Brittany is a registered and licensed occupational therapist who holds a PhD in Integrative Mental Health. She is the owner of a writing and consulting company called Simplicity of Health. She has direct experience in program development, behavioral health, pediatrics, and telehealth. She has published five books, lectured at 20+ OT/OTA programs, and has been quoted as a health expert by NBC News, WebMD, CNN, and other outlets.


    Dr. Brittany Ferri, PhD

    Brittany is a registered and licensed occupational therapist who holds a PhD in Integrative Mental Health. She is the owner of a writing and consulting company called Simplicity of Health. She has direct experience in program development, behavioral health, pediatrics, and telehealth. She has published five books, lectured at 20+ OT/OTA programs, and has been quoted as a health expert by NBC News, WebMD, CNN, and other outlets.