End the family food fight: How to get your kid to eat healthier
“How do I get my kid to eat vegetables?”
As nutrition coaches, we get this question a lot from frustrated parents.
And because we’re parents, too, we totally get it. (Geez, do we get it.)
After all, it’s your job to help your children practice good nutrition.
Yet you can’t make kids like their vegetables. Or embrace new foods. Or eagerly choose healthy snacks.
So what can you do?
Put the focus on helping your kids—not on making them.
If it sounds like we’re quibbling over semantics, trust us: The word “help” can make a world of difference—in their attitude, and yours.
We know because we’ve used this “help not make” mindset to guide thousands of adults toward healthier eating habits and better food choices.
And at home, we’ve used it to help our own kids eat their vegetables (voluntarily!), reach for fruit (enthusiastically!), and develop a healthy relationship with food (dessert isn’t bad!).
The technique works on kids of all ages, and we’re going to share it with you in this article.
Try it yourself, or use it with your clients. You might find food really can bring your family closer together. Just like it’s supposed to.
No one likes to be told what to do.
This is a fundamental fact of human psychology, and it’s true of almost everyone, including kids.
Whether age 2 or 92, humans respond in pretty similar ways when they’re ordered around.
- Stop listening.
- Refuse to comply.
- Lose their tempers.
They might even do the opposite of what they’ve been told.
The reason: Being bossed around can make you feel minimized, unseen and unheard, as if no one cares about your thoughts or opinions.
And that’s just from an adult’s point of view. Now imagine being a kid.
Make no mistake: Kids need direction. Left to their own devices, they’d have to learn way too many lessons the hard way. And potty training could take years.
But that doesn’t mean they need parents to always tell them what to do.
There’s an alternative that tends to work better, and it’s particularly effective when it comes to food: Help them figure out what to do for themselves.
- Ask them curious, reflective questions about their choices.
- Deeply listen to and consider their answers.
- Use their responses to guide them.
This one shift—away from directives and over to questions—can transform parenting. And though it may sound a bit abstract right now, we’ll show you five ways to start using this technique today.
But first, let’s start with a few ground rules.
Rule #1: Practice the behavior you want to see.
Kids naturally trend toward doing what they see you doing. So model the behavior you want them to emulate, such as:
- eating slowly
- having meals at a table rather than in front of the TV
- enjoying vegetables
- taking time to prepare and cook food
- stopping eating when you’re satisfied or full, not stuffed
Before giving kids more power, you’ll want to consider:
What are you teaching your kids by example?
Because when your actions don’t match your words, kids notice.
Rule #2: Do your part—and trust them to do theirs.
This rule allows you to shift more power to your kids without opening the door to full-on mutiny.
Consider using the Satter Institute’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR) framework.
It’s slightly different depending on the age of a child, but it involves splitting nutritional responsibilities into two categories:
What the parent does:
- Shops for food
- Prepares the food
- Provides regular meals at set times
- Makes eating times enjoyable
What the child does:
- Decides whether to eat
- Decides which of the available foods to eat
- Decides how much to eat
This framework allows you to maintain control over what foods come into the house. If you don’t want ice cream—maybe because it’s a red light food for you—then no ice cream.
If your kids get ice cream elsewhere, say at a friend’s home, try to sort that into your “no biggie” mental box.
Why? According to the framework: You don’t control what they eat outside the home. They do.
The Satter method also helps you to focus on the experience of eating.
You might have a “no electronics at the table” rule—because that falls right into your role as a parent. But you don’t spend your meal cajoling your kids to eat their veggies; that’s their choice, not yours. (More about what to do instead later in the story.)
Rule #3: Remain neutral.
Neutral involves asking genuine questions, with curiosity, and being okay with your child’s response.
Neutral is not: “I’m going to ask you a question that only has one right answer: My answer.”
It’s also not celebrating your kids’ choices with comments like “Yay! You ate your veggies! Good job!” Nor is it bemoaning their choices by saying things like, “You’re eating THAT for a snack?”
This can be super hard at first. After all, you care a lot about your kids and the state of their arteries, pancreas, and overall health.
But it’s this neutrality, coupled with the rules that we already mentioned, that allow questions to work.
The more you model the behaviors you want to see, hold up your end of the bargain, and remain neutral, the more likely your kids will actually do the thing you want them to do—no yelling required.
The 30-day snack bin experiment
If you’re worried what will happen if you give your kids the power to choose, consider trying this 30-day experiment. And yes, it might take a leap of faith. But remember, you’re just testing it out. You can always revert back to your old approach after it’s over.
Step 1: Shop for snacks.
Before heading to the grocery store, ask your kids to list what snacks they want from several categories of foods:
- 1-2 proteins (Greek yogurt, eggs, meats)
- 2 fruits
- 2-3 vegetables
- 1-2 healthy fats (nuts, peanut butter, cheese, guacamole)
- 1-2 packaged “snack” items (chips, granola, jerky, crackers, whatever they love)
This example provides a good ratio, but it’s okay to change the limits on how many items they can list, especially for financial reasons.
But try not to control which items they add to the list, beyond the boundaries you’ve set. That’s their responsibility.
Step 2: Create snack bins.
Designate a bin in the fridge for perishables (such as fresh fruit and veggies) and a bin in the pantry for nonperishables (such as crackers and peanut butter). If you have more than one child, designate bins for each of them and have them write their names on them.
Step 3: Each evening, fill the bins with snacks for the following day.
Each kid chooses items from the grocery store snack stash, putting 1-2 items in their perishable and non-perishable bins.
Step 4: Kids eat (or don’t eat) their snacks.
The following day, let them choose which snacks to eat and when to eat them.
Continue to do this for at least a month, taking note of how their eating choices naturally change.
Yes, at first, your kids might eat everything right away—and may not be all that hungry for lunch or dinner.
Be patient, stay neutral, and have them sit down with you for meals, even if they’re not hungry.
Over time, as they learn that the snacks will always be available, they’ll naturally learn to spread them out—eating only when truly hungry.
Questions that can transform meal time
Now that you know the ground rules, let’s explore how to use questions to transform your children into vegetable eaters.
First, however, a little advice.
People say, “there’s no such thing as a bad question.” But that’s not entirely true—because certain types of questions work better than others.
Disempowering questions have a tone of authority, reinforcing your position as a parent and of you being right. They are “what I say goes” statements formed as questions. When you use them, your kids feel attacked and minimized.
Empowering questions help people feel seen, heard, and welcome to make their own choices.
You can see the two types, in action, in the chart below.
|Disempowering Conversation||Empowering Conversation|
|Parent: Are you going to eat your vegetables?|
Parent: Why the heck not?
Kid: I don’t like how you cooked them.
Parent: Well that’s how we always cook them.
The tension builds and dinner stops being fun.
|Parent: Are you going to eat your vegetables?|
Parent: Hmmm…Would you be willing to tell me why?
Kid: I don’t like how you cooked them.
Parent: Really? That’s interesting. Could you tell me more about why you don’t like them?
Kid: They’re mushy. And you put lots of stuff on top of them.
Parent: Gotcha! Sounds like I cooked them too long and added too much seasoning. Is that right?
Parent: Now I’m curious! How do you like to eat them the best?
Kid: When you made them that one time on the grill. They were crunchy. And you didn’t put so much stuff on top of them.
Parent: That’s super helpful. So, if I grill them and don’t put herbs on top of them, do you think you might be willing to eat them?
Kid: Yeah, probably.
Parent: Thanks. I appreciate knowing that.
Maybe you’re thinking: It’s one thing for nutrition coaches—who are trained to ask questions—to do this with their kids.
It’s another for non-coaches to figure it out.
That’s why we created the following cheatsheet. Though there are dozens of types of questions, these are the ones our coaches use the most with their kids. Once you understand them, it’ll be easier to apply them to your family life.
Question #1: Hold a brainstorming session.
How to do it: Ask open-ended questions. Then pause, and let your kids fill in the answers.
- I‘m going to the grocery store tomorrow. What would you like to add to the list this week?
- Hey, let’s take a look at different types of vegetables. Which ones do you think you’d be willing to try?
- We’ve been into a rut lately with dinner, eating the same 3-4 meals over and over. Would you be willing to flip through a cookbook with me, and let me know which meals you want to try?
Why it works: This technique helps you honor and respect your children’s food preferences without being over-determined by them. Use it to understand what your kids like and don’t like.
How to help a picky eater
Got a picky eater? Use this exercise to guide your child toward a few more options. Ask your child for help filling in each of three categories:
- Foods you always like to eat
- Foods you sometimes like to eat
- Foods you will definitely not eat—not even two bites
You can also make the exercise more specific, for example, asking about fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans/legumes, and protein foods your child is willing to eat always, sometimes, or never.
#2: Create a cornucopia of options.
How to do it: In The Hunger Games, the participants could choose a weapon from the cornucopia, but the game designers chose which weapons were actually available. Cornucopia questions function much in the same way—but without all the death.
List or present a range of choices, including at least one you know your child will love.
- Okay, for our main course tonight, this is what’s available in the fridge right now: roasted chicken, burgers, or fish sticks. Which one do you vote for?
- I would love some help with cooking. It’s so hard for me to do this all myself. Would you be willing to help by setting the table? Making a salad? Finding recipes?
- After placing dinner—fish, rice, veggies—on the table, ask: What foods do you want to put on your plate?
Why it works: A list of options gives your kids a sense of control, but simultaneously creates guardrails that prevent kids from driving off the cliff.
Maybe you’re wondering: What do you do if your kid goes exclusively for the same option repeatedly? For example, let’s say you try the third example we’ve listed above, and your kid goes straight for the rice and eats nothing else.
First, try not to react with negativity.
Second, play around with including different foods in the rotation—say, instead of white rice, you might have potatoes or whole wheat pasta or even broccoli. Or, play around with making their favorite a little bit healthier, perhaps by mixing white and brown rice together.
Second, try question #3.
#3: Add something new.
How to do it: Often when kids want to eat the same food, over and over, parents try subtraction: How do I stop my kid from eating x, y, or z?
With this approach, you do the opposite. Rather than taking away their favorite option, you add to it. Don’t fuss about what your kid wants to keep doing. Instead shift the focus to what new, healthy food or habit you could add.
- Great. You want fries for dinner for the third night in a row. Do you think you could add a fruit to that?
- Mac and cheese again? You sure do love that. I’m wondering: Could we mix something else into it? Let’s look at this chart together. What do you think would taste great when added to mac and cheese?
- In addition to grilled cheese, I’m curious: Would you be able to try just two bites of these carrot sticks? You don’t have to like it. I’d just like to see what you think.
Why it works: New foods and experiences can be scary. This technique helps picky eaters feel safe because their favorite food is still available.
#4: Ask for help.
How to do it: Imagine you’re trying to do something—and you can’t get it done because your family just keeps getting in the way. Say, for example, you keep skipping your workouts because you have to drive your kids to activities.
Or, maybe you really want to keep certain foods out of the house—to stop yourself from overeating them—but these are the very foods your kids love.
For this technique, you’ll encourage your kids to help you solve your problem.
To do it, first acknowledge the current situation, how it makes you feel, and the benefits of a change, as well as the downsides of not changing. Then ask for their help. The most important thing: Make them feel included and important.
Example 1: “I’ve gotten to a point where I’m not as healthy as I want to be, and we’re going to make some improvements to the way we do things so I can become more healthy. I want to involve you in that.
There are certain foods I just can’t have in the house right now. If they’re here, I’ll eat too much of them. One of them is ice cream.
I’d really like to not buy it, but I know you guys love it. Could you help me solve this problem? I could really use your help.”
Example 2: “I’ve noticed when we go out to eat so often [or “at certain places” or “more than once a week”], I don’t always feel good the next day. And when I don’t feel good, I can’t play outside with you as much as I want.
Do you think you can help me cook some of our favorite foods at home to help me feel better?
Plus, I think we’ll save some money that we can put toward that new _____ you’ve been talking about.”
Another approach: “This doesn’t happen for everyone, but when I go out to eat, I tend to eat more than my body needs, and I don’t always feel good afterward.”
*** Important note: The idea isn’t to suggest that eating out is “bad” but to express why it may not be the best approach for you in a way that doesn’t demonize restaurant food or make it entirely off-limits.
Example 3: “I heard that you had a guest speaker at school who talked about the importance of fruits and veggies.
Do you think you can share with me what you talked about and help me find them at the grocery store?”
Why it works: This question helps kids see the merits of a desired behavior, as well as the downsides of not doing a desired behavior. It works best with school-age kids who can reason out pros and cons.
#5: Give up and let them win.
How to do it: Ever feel like, no matter what you say, your kid is going to dig in—even if the whole conversation makes literally no sense?
Maybe, for example, your kid is telling you that everything you cook tastes like “bacteria.” Pushing back against such a comment? It’s a recipe for outside voices, tears, and slammed doors.
So do the opposite: Let your kid win the battle.
For obvious reasons, use this technique with caution.
Example 1: “What I hear you telling me is that you’re not hungry for dinner because you spent the afternoon snacking on chips with your friends—and that friend time is really super important to you.
Of course, you shouldn’t give up ALL those types of snacks and sweets that you love to eat with your friends. Having fun with friends is important.
And you also don’t have to eat dinner if you’re not hungry. That’s your choice, but I would appreciate it if you sat here with the family. Would you be willing to do that?”
Example 2: “It’s totally fine that you don’t like what I cooked. Would you like to find something else to eat from the fridge?”
Example 3: “I’ve seen you cook on the weekends for you and your friends. If you don’t like what we’re having for dinner right now, maybe you can cook something else?”
Why it works: Sometimes, especially with teens and toddlers, the only way to get past resistance is to create a void. That way, they have nothing to push back against.
7 ways to make nutrition fun
- Play “two-bites” Bingo. Create a Bingo board with fun eating challenges in each square, like: Dip your least favorite veggie in peanut butter, chocolate, or whipped cream. The whole family must take two bites of any food creation. Once you do enough food challenges to earn a Bingo, award a prize.
- Award points for trying new foods. Maybe kids get 5 points for trying a new veggie, 10 points for trying it with another food (such as carrots on a salad), or 20 points for preparing and trying the new veggie. Once they get to 100 points, award a prize.
- Designate a “You’re in Charge” night: Each family member gets a night to be in charge and pick dinner for the whole family. If a kid picks pizza, that’s totally fair. (Hint: Parents can make healthier choices on their nights.)
- Make dinner a roll of the dice: Everyone works together to brainstorm six dinner ideas. Assign each dinner a number from one to six. Then, designate one night a week as “game night.” For that night, you pick dinner by rolling dice.
- Give fruits and veggies their own spirit days. On “red” day, you eat red produce. On “yellow day” yellow produce, and so on.
- Ask kids for help planning, shopping, and preparing dinner. Tasks from setting the table to flipping the pancakes helps to involve kids, teach them important kitchen skills, and, ultimately, makes them more likely to eat what you’ve prepared.
- Stage an experiment. While shopping with you, ask kids to find produce the family has never tried before. Agree to sample it as an experiment. You might even have kids “review” the food with a starring system.
What to do next
Ready to put the technique into practice?
You could start by slipping questions into everyday situations, here and there, gaining confidence with the technique over time.
Or, if you want to be more methodical, consider holding a family meeting and talking openly about some change you need the whole family’s help to make.
But don’t try to do too much at once. One new action is plenty. In fact, you could use this simple process with your family:
- Choose and test. If you had to start with only one action, what would it be? How will you know if it worked? Or didn’t?
- Observe and monitor. How is this working? Not working? What thoughts, feelings, and behaviors come from this process?
- Analyze and evaluate. If what you did worked, keep doing it. If it didn’t, work together to strategize and come up with a new action.
With this approach, everyone can buy into a change, helping get kids on your side—no yelling, threatening, or door-slamming required.
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