Food Healthy Eating

Dietitian breaks down how struggling parents can get picky kids to eat healthy

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Getting young children to eat healthy can be a big task, but getting them to eat at all can be way harder. Most parents of preschool and elementary-aged children want to be able to provide a balanced, nutritious diet. However, one strategy could be doing more harm than good. A national poll reveals that three in five parents customize meals if their child doesn’t like what is being served to everyone else.

“Feeding young children can be difficult due to general pickiness, hesitancy to try unfamiliar foods and constantly evolving food preferences,” says Mott Poll co-director and Mott pediatrician Susan Woolford, M.D, in a media release.

“The preschool and elementary age is an important time to establish healthy eating patterns. Yet parents’ concern about whether their child is eating enough or if they’re getting the nutrients they need may lead them to adopt practices that actually sabotage their efforts to get kids to have healthy eating habits in the short and long term.”

The nationally representative poll included 1,083 responses from parents of children ages three to 10. The report showed that one in eight parents require children to eat everything on their plate, according to the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. Additionally, it revealed that only one in three believe the standard American diet is healthy for kids, and half ranked the Mediterranean diet as healthier. Still, only a few parents have tried providing more nutritionally dense foods at home.

“Parents may recognize the standard diet in the U.S. includes high amounts of saturated fats, added sugars, sodium, and refined carbohydrates, which can generate an excess intake of calories beyond nutritional needs and contribute to health problems,” says Woolford.

“However, despite this recognition and evidence suggesting that other diet options may help avoid many illnesses, only about 9% have tried the Mediterranean diet for their children and fewer have tried giving their children a vegetarian diet.”

Interestingly, 15 percent of parents say that their family rule is that kids finish their plates. Over half say children have to try a little of everything, and just under a third of parents say no to dessert if kids don’t finish their entire meal. However, parents who try to enforce plate-cleaning eating patterns could encourage kids to eat past fullness, which can have its own set of consequences.

“Requiring children to eat everything on their plate, or withholding dessert unless all other foods are eaten, can lead to overconsumption, especially if portion sizes are too large for the child’s age,” Woolford explains.

Instead, she backs the idea of “parents provide, and the child decides.” This way, parents are responsible for providing healthy foods while the children can choose what and how much they eat. A staggering 65 percent of parents make separate meals if their kid doesn’t like the food that’s already prepared, and usually, it’s an unhealthier alternative.

“Rather than allowing the child to choose an alternate menu, parents should provide a balanced meal with at least one option that their child is typically willing to eat,” Woolford continues. “Then if their child chooses not to eat, parents should not worry as this will not cause healthy children any harm and they will be more likely to eat the options presented at the next meal.”

Children eating vegetables

Woolford explains that children learn through watching and imitating, so it’s helpful for parents to model healthy eating through a well-balanced diet so that kids have a good example. Limiting snacks between meals could also help promote an increased willingness to eat the foods offered at mealtime.

To no surprise, parents explain that their biggest challenge with making sure their child eats a healthy diet is their kid being a picky eater. Healthy food can be more costly and, therefore, easily goes to waste. The poll finds a few parents mention that they don’t have time to make nutritious food.

Almost all of the parents polled report trying at least one strategy to get their child to eat veggies, like serving vegetables every day, fixing vegetables how their child prefers, trying new ones, and even letting children pick them out at the grocery store. Some parents involve their kids in the preparation process, mask the veggies in other foods, or offer a reward if their kids eat them.

“Unsurprisingly, parents said pickiness and getting kids to eat veggies were among major challenges during mealtimes,” says Woolford. “Parents should try to include children in meal decisions, avoid pressuring food consumption and provide a variety of healthy options at each meal so kids feel more control.”

Family Doing Grocery Shopping

Aside from the foods themselves, portion size is another big part of reducing the risk of childhood obesity. However, it can be hard for parents to gauge the right amount for their kids. Almost 70 percent of parents said they give their children slightly less than adults in the family, while fewer moms and dads let their children choose how much to have, use serving sizes from the package, or give their children adult-sized portions. Woolford recommends utilizing visual resources like “MyPlate,” provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Another barrier is grocery shopping. Parents said they try to limit the number of foods with added sugar and ultra-processed foods in general when at the store or planning their meals. For many reasons, clearly identifying what foods are unhealthy can be difficult, especially with deceptive marketing tactics at play. Parents should carefully read labels to get the clearest idea. Woolford also encourages parents to involve their kids more in the shopping process.

“Have them help in the process of choosing the healthiest options, not ones that necessarily directly advertise to children, but foods that they are willing to try that are lower in sugar, fat and salt,” the study author concludes. “Spend most of the time in the produce section and try to make it fun by maybe selecting new options from different parts of the world that they haven’t tried before.”

A Dietitian’s Take

Most parents want to provide the best food possible for their kids, but as evidenced by the poll, there are many barriers to this. Parents usually know that the standard American diet is heavy on highly refined, sugary, salty, and fried foods and isn’t healthy.

However, they don’t typically know what to do with that information. Other parents may not have the education or socioeconomic means to provide anything different. So, not only do we have to consider what parents are willing to do to improve the diet of their children and lower the rising rates of childhood obesity, we have to consider what they are to do.

Socioeconomic status is such a huge piece of the puzzle that often goes missing when we talk about strategies for getting kids to eat healthier. Education is the best tool that can be offered to help people make sustainable changes for their kids and families within their means. Aside from this, including kids in the shopping process, allowing them to eat according to their fullness, and limiting their exposure to highly processed foods early on so that it gives room for more whole foods are some of the most beneficial ways to improve their diet.