I’m not sure how exactly it happened, but over the last year of trying to incorporate clean eating into my own lifestyle, I’ve found my two daughters, ages 5 and 2, have started eating cleaner, too. Hallelujah. No more are the fights to get them to finish meals, eat their veggies, or stop begging for snacks (just kidding, there’s no way to stop that).
So how did I do it?
Here’s my list, in no particular order, from a super-busy, overly-neurotic, part-time physical therapist, part-time stay-at-home mom with no real education in nutrition other than internet articles, Pinterest recipes, and good old trial and error.
1. Make one meal a day “kid-friendly.” For us, this is typically lunch. If kids eat one full meal a day, plus some healthy snacks, you can mark that down as a win. It will make you less stressed when you go to serve them a dinner platter of broccoli-quinoa-turkey-patties or whatever clean eating adventure you’ve come up with that evening and they look at you like you have two heads. For the record, I hate quinoa. I haven’t found one way to prepare it that doesn’t taste like tiny cardboard particles.
2. Don’t be afraid to present them with foods they may not like. I make the same dinner for my whole family. I don’t make things overly spicy or unusual. We eat a lot of roasted or steamed veggies, sweet potatoes, brown rice, chicken, ground turkey, beef, salmon, and shrimp. Pinterest is amazing, and I try new recipes all the time. Look for recipes that seem easy, tasty, and relatively cheap to prepare. Keep it simple and kids will eat it too.
3. Embrace the snacks. My kids eat snacks all day long. They ask for snacks while they’re having snacks. You can hide all sorts of goodies in muffins—bananas, pumpkin, oats, whole wheat flour—the list goes on. Smoothies make GREAT kid snacks. Pack the freezer with frozen fruit and spinach, the fridge with yogurt and coconut water, and blend to your heart’s desire. I call it their “afternoon ice cream.”A little white lie never hurt anyone, especially if it tricks your kids into eating spinach with glee. Cut up veggies with dip are also great for the dreaded late afternoon snack demands. If they’re not hungry for dinner, at least they already ate their veggies. Jokes on you, suckers.
4. Less is more. My mother-in-law taught me this one. I used give the kids a plate full of different options just hoping they’d eat something. Our kids get very excited about a “clean plate club” night and I’m setting them up for failure if I serve them dinner sized for a grown man.
5. Two words: dip and cheese. I’m sure most of you have figured this out by now, but kids love to dip things into other things. You’d be shocked by how many foods I’ve gotten my 2-year-old to eat by offering her a side of ketchup. Revolting, yes, but effective. Same goes for cheese. Some Parmesan on your beef and barley? If it makes you happy, anything my love.
6. Another trick I’m afraid to share, lest I end up shamed on the internet, is that I still feed my kids. Baby-led weaning be damned. Like literally feed them by hand, 5-year-old included. I truly believe that half the time they stop eating out of sheer laziness. Five minutes into dinner they’re ready to wander off, but given the chance, they’re happy to let mom do the work. I even feed them from my plate; my pickiest eater will eat overnight oats with chia seeds, feta and kale sauté, or a spicy Mexican meal as long as it comes from my plate first.
7. Invest in gadgets and make food fun. Some of our favorites are pancake shapers, popsicle molds (filled with yogurt and fruit), and a little box that turns hard boiled eggs into a skull shape. I stumbled on some pretty awesome Candyland plates on Amazon too—you have to eat your way to the end to get to the dessert. Genius.
8. Browse the organic fruits and veggies aisle first. As much as I’d love to bring home a week’s worth of groceries from Whole Foods, spending the small fortune this requires just isn’t in our budget. But our other local groceries have great organic sections that I pick from first, supplementing after from the rest of the section. I do only buy organic milk, but otherwise, I make my peace that I’m doing the best I can without running through their college funds. Want bonus points? Google “dirty dozen and clean fifteen” and try to focus your organic choices there when you can.
9. Last, and most importantly, let them eat sweets! After years struggling with my own weight, I’ve concluded the only diet plan that works for me is common sense nutrition and an “80/20” view—eat clean 80% of the time, enjoy treats the other 20%. If dark chocolate and wine are not involved in some new diet trend, I’m not interested. Same goes for my kids. I’m very happy to let them enjoy chocolate and cookies, but I don’t let them go wild eating processed foods that leave their hands the color of Cheetos. Friday is our baking day, and my oldest and I prepare a special dessert together for Shabbat. If they experience treats on the regular, they won’t go binge-crazy when they encounter them out in the world.
I hope you find this helpful. And more importantly, I hope my kids don’t turn on me and suddenly demand Lunchables and Easy Mac now that I’ve asserted to the world I sort of know what I’m doing. Bon Appetit!