Raising Healthy Eaters: notes and observations

“If my life were a movie, mealtime in our home would be the gory part…” I wrote over eight years ago in an emotional post my hobby blog, Under the High Chair.

I had a toddler and a baby, and was devastated to report that the disaster we called ‘family dinner’ was a real let-down. “Things will get better” I was told by many people, and of course they did eventually. But at the time, when everything I made ended up on the floor and I struggled to eat everything one-handed, I wondered nightly “What is the point?”

The truth is, the family table is a wonderfully intimate yet ever so imperfect gathering place.

During the good times, it’s the best spot on earth – and when things get ugly, we have to will ourselves to stay in our seats and endure. If you’re enduring, I’m here to tell you what other parents told me – things will get better, in their own time and in their own way. In the meantime here are a few things to remember about feeding kids that helped me over the past decade.

Raising Healthy Eaters || Simple Bites Photo by Tim Chin

For starters, let’s not call kids picky eaters.

Selective? Much better. Finicky? And how. It was always astonishing to me how frequently their tastes changed, especially as toddlers. One day they would be enthusiastic about sweet potato and the next week all orange vegetables were regarded with disgust. Wait. What?

These days, my children are 10, 8 and 4 and they constantly surprise me with their palates and great taste. They love “weird” ingredients like pickles, smoked salmon, olives, avocado, lentils and beans of all kinds. Brown rice pilaf is requested more often than French fries and simple salmon, roasted or grilled, is a favourite dinner. All three of my children adore big leafy green salads and soups full of vegetables.

Yes, they still have dislikes as they grow older, but so do we all. I won’t label them as picky eaters (as I unfortunately have in the past) but recognize that they have their preferences and aversions.

Start them on the right track from Day 1.

From what I have seen and read, breast-fed infants are more accepting of new foods than formula-fed babies. It’s very possible that a mother’s eating habits are indicated in the taste of her breast milk, providing a sort of “flavor bridge” that helps a baby transition to the foods mum ate regularly while nursing. This certainly was my experience as my little ones began solid foods.

Raising Healthy Eaters || Simple Bites

Baby-led weaning worked miracles for me, even if I only discovered it with my youngest, Clara. BLW is essentially skipping puréed foods and letting the baby self-feed appropriate foods for beginners. Clara always was – and still is – my best eater, a blessing that I credit to BLW and a positive start to solid foods.

Other successful steps I took with all my children were to avoid sugar and sugary drinks (yes, even juice) for as long as possible, as well as introducing my kids to as many vegetables as I could before their first birthday.

Remember that tastes change, evolve and mature.

My tastes have changed over the years, so it has makes sense that my children’s would too. I have to remind myself of this when a seasonal favourite family dish doesn’t receive the same enthusiasm it used to a year ago.

I have seen my children come back around to foods, like avocado, cheeses and kiwi fruit, so I know it is possible. Don’t push the food on them, but don’t stop offering it completely, either.

Raising Healthy Eaters || Simple Bites || Collecting eggs Photo by Tim Chin

Listen to your children.

Noah abandoned raw tomatoes and all berries at an early age; turned them down ever since he was a toddler. What kind of a kid doesn’t like berries? He’d even protest when we all turned out at the u-pick strawberry patch, taking great pains to avoid coming in contact with the berries.

He has since articulated that they sting his tongue (pineapple does as well) – thus indicating a slight allergy. And I was so I glad I never pushed the issue when he was young. It’s important to listen to your children, even if it sounds like they’re whining.

Eat what you love.

I’m a firm believer of not catering to what our society calls “family food”; that endless rotation of fish sticks, pepperoni pizza and spaghetti. Cook and eat what you love, and eventually the children will love it too.

Don’t dumb down your food or cook special meals. Give them enough space to not like something, and yet offer it prepared a different way. It’s rare for a child to take to a new flavour or texture the first -or even second or third – time.

September seasonal vegetables

Incorporate vegetables into a recipe when possible.

The archives on this blog contain quite a few recipes where pureed or grated vegetables are added to the dish to bolster the nutritional value. Orange Mango Carrot Smoothie, Roasted Beet & Garlic Pasta, Spinach Crepes with Maple-Stewed Blueberries and Sweet Potato Red Lentil Biscuits are just a few examples.

If your children are in a stage where vegetables are evil, these recipes can show them that veggies aren’t so bad after all. I don’t lie to my kids about what is in their dish, but instead talk about how cool it is that vegetables are so versatile.

Apple & Fennel Stuffed Salmon with Cider Sauce | Simple Bites

Serve the sauce on the side if that will help.

Kids can be fanatical about silly things like foods touching each other or food slathered in sauces; I know I have a couple like that. Often I’ll prepare proteins with basic condiments like butter and salt, and then liven them up by serving a sauce alongside, to be spooned up or politely declined.

A few of my children are still in the anti-sauce stage, and this method has allowed us all to enjoy a dinner of grilled chicken, roasted fish or chops with no complaints. I expound further on this little system of mine in a post: The secret is in the sauce.

Raising Healthy Eaters || Simple Bites || Family Dinner

It’s not personal. Boy, did I learn this the hard way! This might be the most important note to remember. Well that and this one: You’re not alone. Remember that there are other parents out there going through the same thing.

Hang in there! Keep cooking and bringing the family together. Your efforts will have a lifelong positive effect on your children.

How are you raising healthy eaters? I’d love to hear your take on the topic and hear if you agree or disagree with my notes and observations.

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites. Her first book, Brown Eggs and Jam Jars - Family Recipes from the Kitchen of Simple Bites, was published in February 2015.

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  1. Thanks for this post. I love this approach. I have an 18 month old who is a great eater but like all 18 month olds – she is fickle. She’ll eat an entire chicken breast one day and then throw chicken on the floor screaming “raisins!” the next. Looking forward to continuing to share my love of food with her.

  2. A great post! My kids are ages 8 and 10, and I’m doing my best to raise healthy eaters. I always make my kids try a few bites of everything on the table. One reason is basic manners. I think it’s extremely rude to refuse to try foods that others have prepared. Grandma’s house is a good place to practice. Being open to try new foods is a life skill. If you can be open, you’re set to travel, learn to like ethnic foods, and develop a taste for healthy foods!

  3. Burt Wagner says

    I love food, and am a very adventurous eater myself. Ever since my son (now age 7) could eat non-pureed food, I’ve exposed him to what I like to eat. I regularly go to a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, and I’ve always shown him that to try new things is a special treat. At age 4, he regularly asked to go for (or have me make) Ethiopian cuisine. Ever since he was a little more than 2, his absolute favorite things to eat are mussels and clams. Especially clams. I make them at home a lot, and I show him that really good things are also easy to prepare (like mussels marinere). I was astounded and overjoyed a couple of years ago when I asked him what he wanted me to cook for dinner on his birthday. Without hesitation, he answered, “Cioppino.”

    We do eat out 1-2 dinners per week, and I really hate when restaurants offer a “kids’ menu” of chicken fingers, cheeseburgers, and blue-box mac & cheese. I specifically don’t allow him to pick from that, but instead steer him to an appetizer as his meal. Don’t chefs realize that the kids in the restaurant are the most important palettes there? They’re just learning to appreciate food! Help them learn! You should care as much or more about their meals than any other customer’s.

  4. Frederique says

    I agree with you 95%. I do think being firm about tasting something served to them is extremely important and that MAY need a little “forcing” the food on them. Of course, the deal is to take at least one bite, and if my daughter (now 5) makes a face or really doesn’t like it then she is allowed to leave it. I also always ask WHY she doesn’t like something (too sour, spicy, taste, texture etc), so if something hinted towards an allergy (like your son with berries) I would obviously never force the food on her again. This also helps with preparation for next time, as i rotate ways of preparing the food for the next tasting. My daughter hated eggs from the first time she tried at 9 months all the way to age 2. Eggs being easy, amazing, fast sources of protein, I imposed her to try once a month for those 13 months – hard boiled, scrambled, frittata, in a sandwich, over easy, just the white, just the yolk… low and behold, in the end, just the name of them made her shiver, and my fiancé one night had the most brilliant idea… he told her that they wern`t eggs, but “coco” which is a cute term for them in french. She not only gladly tasted them but loved them and has been eating them ever since. THUS, mushrooms became “schmoulou”, green beans became “shrek fries” and so on. Of course, after a few times her eating eggs, mushrooms and green beans happily, we told her that they were one and the same, and she shrugs it off and keeps eating! Im am excited to say her favorite reccurent meal is now mushroom and aged cheddar omlette served with salad (which she disliked until we found avocado ranch dressing) and homemade sourdough, toasted and slathered with butter. She will eat pretty much anything now, from asparagus with roasted salmon to brussel sprouts with chicken, mussels, spinach, raw tofu and things in between! I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that restaurants should NOT serve pizza and nuggets to kids and totally agree with the idea of breastfeeding for better eating (my daughter was breastfed till she was 2!). We are wanting to try to conceive soon for a second child, and i will definately investigate Child led weaning! Thanks for this post and all the other posts you do; they are wonderful!
    Cheers from the Plateau 😉

    • That is a great success story, Frederique! Your daughter sounds like a healthy eater for sure. Best of luck with your expanding family. xo

  5. Aimee: Great post! What is the picture of the tied fish (with the peach slices??)? I think I NEED to make that this weekend? Might I have the recipe (hopefully there’s a blog post somewhere or a link)> Thanks so much for another great post! Julia

  6. Expecting my first child very soon, so thankful for these ideas 🙂

  7. Hi Aimee
    Such a great post. I agree with your observations and love your ingenuity when it comes to making a meal everyone can eat. I found the ‘sauce on the side’ trick worked for me too when it came to including more salad in our life. ‘Dressing on the side’ or not at all and starting with a smaller portion size and working up, worked really well for me. Soups were hard with my kids until I turned the ‘soup’ into a ‘dip’ with bread or other food vehicle to transport the flavours to their mouth! Now the portions here are larger and my oldest(9) is a really big fan of a few lentil soups that I prepare, lentils!!
    Have a great summer!

  8. Cristina says

    Any ideas for introducing spicy foods to kids? Both my kids are generally good eaters ( Gouda, olives and salami being our current favorites). I’m Caucasian but my husband is Indian and we’d like to start using some chilies again. We end up having to bring separate meals for our kids to family dinners as the chilies make food unpalatable for my 3 & 1 year old. Not to mention the chili in the eyes. Do NOT want to go through that again.

  9. Great piece, Aimee! And, speaking as mum to a 14-year-old, it just gets better and better. In fact, our biggest boy encourages his younger siblings (6 & 8) to “just try it… because if you like it, you’ll be glad you did”… and they listen to his endorsement… unlike mine ; )

  10. My son just got married, so fingers crossed grand kids are right around the corner! This is a good article to keep in mind, even though it might be a couple years before we will have to enforce the healthy eaters with in them. I will start keeping notes now!

  11. Great post – thank you Aimeé!

    I think healthy eating is more about kids loving food and the whole family feeling around it, than about always eating ‘healthy’ food. As you say, we all have different tastes and these change with time. I try to offer a range of foods to my daughter, but also try to allow her to choose what she is liking at any particular time.

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