Balanced Meals for Kids: Not Until You Eat Your Vegetables

A balanced diet is important for everyone when it comes to your personal health, but it can be doubly important in children. What your child is eating now is laying the foundation for later in life, and your behavior and attitude about food is making an impression on them every time you sit down at the dinner table.

Beyond offering up balanced meals and healthy options at mealtime, sometimes it can be difficult to get your child to actually eat them. Sure, you may be serving them up, but if they’re discarding or eating just a bite or two of their vegetables every meal in favor of the beef stroganoff or the turkey and cheese sandwich, their diet is still lacking.

If your kids are anything like mine, threatening them with the old “you can’t do that until you eat your vegetables” is only going to make them more stubborn about not eating their vegetables. Below I share what I’ve found works best in making sure that my kids are getting nutrition from all areas of the food pyramid and in the right amounts.

6 Ways to a Balanced Diet with Your Child

1. Figure out what time your child eats the most.

One thing my pediatrician always stresses is not to worry if one of our kids just doesn’t seem hungry for one meal. It’s normal for appetite to fluctuate as little bodies grow and change within a matter of a week or even on a day-to-day basis.

I’ve noticed that each of my children have different appetite patterns. My eldest is not a breakfast person, while my oldest son is hungriest in the morning, eating everything in sight and still asking for a snack 20 minutes later. At dinner, however, he is usually indifferent, even if we’re having one of his favorite meals.

Knowing that he’ll likely be willing to eat just about anything for breakfast, I am sure to pack lots of nutrition in early. I offer several fruits and whole grains with breakfast, and for a snack I’ll offer carrot sticks or another vegetable. I try to make sure his diet is balanced throughout the day so that one bad meal isn’t going to mean he ate nothing but carbohydrates all day.

Photo by Shaina

2. Make food fun.

For a three-year-old, a plate full of vegetables may not seem very exciting. Changing that perception can go a long way in getting your children to eat healthy and balanced meals.

As broccoli florets turn into tiny trees and mushrooms become homes for the grains of rice, creativity at the table can be a good thing. Earlier this month, Aimée shared a recipe for cheese fondue to eat with the whole family. This can also be a perfect way to get your kids thinking about vegetables in a fun and exciting way. A plate full of vegetables that is going to go swimming in cheese sauce can be very fun.

Photo by Shaina

3. Serve one thing they like.

I don’t cater to my children’s likes or dislikes when serving meals, but I do try to make sure that each meal contains something that they will eat so they aren’t starving the next morning.

For example, my 9-year-old recently decided that she no longer likes asparagus after 9 years of eating it happily. Knowing that she hates it so, I try to pair it with things I know she likes, like salmon. I know she’ll eat the salmon, even if she doesn’t eat more than the required amount of asparagus and won’t leave the dinner table ravenously hungry.

4. Introduce new foods with flavors that your kids are familiar with.

Introducing a new food and a new flavor combination at the same time can be hard for little mouths to accept. Consider a happy medium.

Let’s say you’re trying to get your children to incorporate some Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of salmon. While your child may not appreciate a lemon and herb grilled salmon on Day 1, try serving your fruit-loving child the salmon with a pineapple-mango salsa. Incorporating the flavors s/he is familiar with and enjoys may be the difference between food introduction failure and success, and first impressions are very important when it comes to introducing new foods.

Photo by Shaina

5. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Just because your child vehemently declared his/her hatred for sugar snap peas, don’t let that discourage you from reintroducing them again at a later date. I can’t even count the number of times one of my children has declared such-and-such food item inedible only to finish the entire serving the second or third time it is presented to them.

I’ve noticed so far that all of my children have gone through a “picky” stage. Instead of letting it get me down, I look at it as a stage that needs conquering. We try different variations of the same food and try to pinpoint what it is they’ve decided they don’t like about it. It could be as easy as serving it with a different sauce or different seasonings and they’re right back into loving it.

6. Get your child involved in the decision-making and preparation.

Being able to make their own choices about what’s for dinner can be a huge emotional boost for a child. Additionally, seeing them beam with pride because they were responsible for the food being served and getting complimented on how delicious it is can reinforce healthy eating habits.

Let your child plan one of the family’s dinners next week. This is a great opportunity to teach them about food groups and encourage them to pick side dishes and an entrée that fit into them and then have them help during the preparation. Getting them involved gives them a sense of independence and ownership over the meal.

Final Thought:

Be sure you’re serving and preparing whole foods. Your diet will always be lacking if your dinner table consists only of prepackaged boxed dinners proclaiming “Just add hamburger!” across their front and your breakfast table is adorned with frosted pastries.

Start with foods that you can easily identify as plant or animal before you start cooking with them and you’ll already be on the road to a healthier, more balanced meal every time you sit down to eat.

Do you do any of these things with your children? What other ideas have you found that work for your children in getting them to eat a balanced diet?

About Shaina

Shaina Olmanson is the home cook and photographer behind Food for My Family, where she shares recipes, tips, opinions and her philosophy on food as she wades through the process of feeding her family, her friends and anyone else who will let her. She strives to teach her four children how to eat well: seasonally, locally, organically, deliciously and balanced.

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  1. Totally agree with the list of tips to get children to eat healthier, especially # 2! That’s actually why we developed Fun To Eat Fruit! Would love to hear your (and followers) feedback on our new product!

  2. I love these tips – especially the idea of starting with foods that are easily identified as plant or animal. Having a very athletic nine year old, we have tried to teach him that poor diet will almost always equal poor performance. We don’t push him to be as active as he is, he’s just passionate about sports. This really aides us in keeping his diet well balanced because he’s motivated to be the best athlete he can be and food is a big part of that.

    • Jan, we do this too. My 9-year-old played basketball this year, and with her and our younger children we emphasize that eating good food and making good choices will give you energy and strength to do the things you enjoy, whether it’s basketball, swimming or playing a game of tag at the park.
      .-= Shaina’s last blog: The Weekly Dinner Menu: 3/15/10 =-.

  3. Great tips here! We don’t have kids yet, but when we do, I will have to re read all of your posts:)

  4. Tip #1 is brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that? We have been struggling to get our 20-month-old to eat anything at dinner time. However, she gobbles down food at breakfast time. Does anyone have any good breakfast recipes that include veggies?

  5. You touched on it, but another key thing is for us moms is to relax. Nutrition doesn’t come down to every meal. If they eat poorly one day then they will likely make up for it the next. And, kids need less food than we think they do. And sigh, they are fickle. One day they love it, the next they don’t.

    I especially echo the try, try, try again. I saw that just again this week with our post-dance trip to the Vietnamese place. The first time they touched nothing, the second time they ate some noodles, this week they were eating salad rolls and the veggies.
    .-= Cheryl Arkison’s last blog: Bean Burgers Yum! =-.

  6. Eggs are an ideal transporter for vegetables. You can soften the veggies by sauteing them gently for a few minutes in butter or oil, before incorporating them into a fritatta or scramble, as Izzy suggested.
    Zucchini, broccoli, peppers, grated carrot, peas, cauliflower, and tomatoes all work well.

  7. The try, try again thing is SO true.

    I didn’t believe it at first. Ainsley consistently rejected the meal over and over again.

    And then one day (maybe months later), I was SHOCKED to discover that she was actually devouring the chicken pot pie or scrambled eggs or mashed potatoes she had always ignored before.

    So I keep putting the “she-won’t-eat-it” food on her plate — every day. It’s my job. I’m the Mama.
    .-= amandaginn’s last blog: Sliding Girl =-.

  8. Monkey see, monkey do. My son wanted to eat everything that we ate, which included potatoes, broccoli, fish, chicken, garlic, lemon, etc. Now, my 19 month old wants to eat everything her big brother eats, and he loves vegetables. At 3, my son is beginning to get picky, but he’s responsive to “just try one bite and see if you like it.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but he usually at least tries it. Then we stop pushing if he says he doesn’t like it. If we all sit together at the table and eat dinner, even if he said he didn’t like it, he might go back to taste it again because he sees us eating it.

    I also believe that if you always put vegetables on the plate for a meal, then it won’t be a shock when kids see them. Be consistent and they won’t question you. Well, they’ll still question you. But constant exposure to vegetables increases they’re familiarity. On that note, taking my kids to the grocery store and farmers’ market has been great with increasing their interest in produce. It’s fun to see the wide array of foods available, and my son likes to pick what we’ll have for dinner. Tonight, he picked asparagus.

    As for breakfast food, quinoa is nutritious and very versatile. It can be sweet or savory. I know in Bolivia, where it’s very popular, it’s treated like rice pudding. You can go so many ways, and it’s one of the few grains with protein. We also do mashed avocado (with a bit of salt and lemon) on toast, oatmeal with fruit, plain yogurt with mashed banana and honey, or even toast with nutella (as a treat). Lots of great breakfast options that go beyond bacon and eggs 🙂
    .-= MetaMommy’s last blog: Recipe: Slim Mints =-.

  9. My kids jump at eating a “fruit face” for snack over just offering them plain old fruit. So all I do is cut up whatever I have in the fruit bowl (apple slice smile, banana rounds for eyes, etc) It’s fun for them to eat and even makes me smile 😉
    .-= Amber’s last blog: 15 Years Ago Today =-.

  10. I swear that my son decided to become picky just in time for this series. I am liking #1 because he is always ravenously hungry in the morning. The only problem is he’s not patient enough for me to make him something that takes more than five minutes. He’s only 20 months so it’s hard to explain to him that he has to wait. He just looks at me with those puppy eyes and starts crying as if to say “Mommy, did you forget that I need to eat?”

    • In trying to introduce more veggies and fruit at breakfast I have found it helps me tremendously to wash and cut them the night before. Then I can throw them in scrambled eggs or oatmeal and it takes considerably less time.

  11. My two older sons (ages 6 and 9) have been incredibly picky, refusing to eat anything but their “favorites” literally for years at a time. I was patient, offering new things over and over. They never changed their minds.

    I finally got “fed up” 🙂 and started insisting they eat a small amount of something new before they received anything else on their plates. After 2 days of complaining that I was killing them, they were happily (and sometimes grudgingly) trying new things. My 6 year old even decided he liked some of the new dishes! You could have pushed me over with a feather!

    So I think that some kids do need a little extra push, a little tough mama love. Don’t be afraid to insist that they try something. I always tell them, they don’t have to like it, but they do have to try it.

  12. Great tips!

    My 3 year old has just discovered his decision making tendencies, and now dinner is his favorite time to declare his independence. One trick that works for us and our later dinner time ( long commute for husband) is to have all the foods that are tougher to get into him out while I make dinner. He will pick at the peas, spinach and apples while I make dinner. Then even if he doesn’t eat it at the table I know he’s gotten a serving.

    Great idea about pairing the newer foods with familiar ones too – that is on my to do list this week!

  13. I’ve definitely found that my granddaughter only eats one “big” meal a day. I’ve tried to compliment that by serving her favorite foods at that meal. The challenge is trying to figure out what her favorite foods are on any given day!
    .-= [email protected]’s last blog: The Little Tykes Wagon For Your Little Folks =-.

  14. I also love tip #1 – something I’ve never thought of. We’re always struggling to get my 2 year old to eat dinner, but he devours breakfast every day. Although, the other day, he asked for a THIRD serving of squash pasta. THIRD?? This is the kid who ate nothing but crackers and fruit for 8 months straight. Maybe we’re moving out of the non-eating (and non weight gaining) 2’s and into a growth spurt.
    .-= Alissa’s last blog: I Ran =-.

  15. This is an excellent article. It is critical to get of children eating healthy, because as you say, this sets the foundation for their entire life. We have too many overweight kids these days, and it is really a shame to see.

  16. One thing that I did with my two year old to try and expand her vegetable horizons was to grow some of our vegetables with her. Last summer we grew tomatoes, basil, and argula. She loved helping to water the plants and watching them grow and she was so excited when we actually picked the tomatoes and included them as part of our dinner. In addition, she loves pesto pasta and I thought growing the basil and making pesto with it was a good way to begin building an understanding of where food really comes from.

  17. I must say it a great post & really useful for people like me. I really have a tough time making my kids eat healthy and balanced diet. Thanks for sharing such wonderful tips And i am surely going to give it a try;)

  18. I do agree that balanced healthy diet for kids is of great importance in today’s world of overabundance of fast food and carbonated drinks. Thanks for your efforts in providing such a wonderful post.

  19. amanda fisher says

    i have tryed to keep my 7 year old son on a healthy diet he eats alot of fruit and veg. i took him to the dentist the other day and he said your child has bad teeth he must be eating to many sweets. my son very realy has any sweets so i dont see how he has bad teeth. if you gave my son wether he would want a chocolete bar or an apple he would choose the apple every time.
    If there is anyone out there in the same boat as me please could you let me know

  20. Great article, and yes it can be difficult to find a diet your kid enjoys. I recommend you try this site, they have some great healthy recipes for kids.

  21. thanx for sharing the precious knowladge about balanced diet. I will try to keep these steps in mind while nourishing children thanx.

  22. INDRICK NDUKU says

    i wish to get daily nutritional advise for my child

  23. Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Many thanks, However I
    am having problems with your RSS. I don’t understand why
    I can’t join it. Is there anybody else having similar RSS problems?
    Anybody who knows the answer will you kindly respond?

  24. I couldn’t agree more with your post!

    Here are my tips:

    – Kids eat what their parents eat. Practicing what you preach is how to get kids to eat vegetables.

    – Hide vegetables in hearty stews and soups to make them more appealing. Mix those vegetables with other healthy food for kids. Add a lean protein like chicken, turkey or beef and they will never notice. Pureed soups are also an excellent idea.

    – Add melted cheese to anything and kids will eat it up.

    – Make fruit and vegetable purees, pour into an ice cube tray, add a stick, freeze, and serve.

    – If they won’t eat vegetables, they will drink them. Juice veggies with some fruit to mask the taste.

    – Blend vegetables like spinach, kale, carrots and broccoli with fresh fruit, yogurt and a little agave and voila, your child is getting the nutrition he/she needs.

    – Those having difficulty getting their child to eat the recommended daily amount of vegetables must try mixing them into tasty sauces.

    – Another way to get children to eat their vegetables is by serving them with dips and dressings.

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