While kids snack on fruit-packed popsicles and scarf down an eight-vegetable spaghetti sauce, adults sit back snickering at pulling off the greatest prank in parenting history —
their kids just ate something good for them and liked it!
It’s no secret that kids are notoriously finicky eaters. Some estimates place the problem as high as 40 percent, but a 2015 study by Duke University School of Medicine researchers found that 1 in 5 kids under age 6 is a selective eater. The good news is that most kids outgrow this developmental phase by age 9. Until that time rolls around, however, parents of picky eaters know there is no amount of begging, bribing or threatening that can convince their kids to “just try it.”
Getting kids to eat healthy without knowing it may be the only way to get them to consume the USDA’s recommended 1 1/2 cups each of whole fruit and veggies every day. Some child nutritionists argue that tricking kids does not teach them lifelong healthy eating habits. Yet parents in the trenches of tantrums and clamped jaws are willing to try every strategy to get some nourishing food into kids’ growing bodies. In celebration of April Fool’s Day, here are some creative ways that you can trick youngsters into eating healthy meals all year long:
End Meal Time Battles by Hiding Food
Sneaking healthy food into a kid’s favorite dishes, rather than making veggies part of the core meal, lets parents serve nutrient-packed meals and prevent all-out eating wars from erupting. The best place to start is by jazzing up food the child does eat. These magical superfoods drastically boost the nutritional value of food, whether it is freshly prepared or pre-packaged, without changing the taste, texture or tint:
- With just two tablespoons of nooch (nutritional yeast), these nutty-cheesy flakes add vitamin B complex, fiber and all nine protein amino acids. Similar in flavor to Parmesan cheese, it is a perfect soup thickener and topping for pizza, pasta, potatoes, popcorn and peanut butter.
- Put some protein into the diet of kids who avoid meat by dropping just one tablespoon of whey or protein powder into a smoothie or glass of milk.
- Phase out sugar by replacing it with honey, which is sweeter and has twice the nutritional profile.
- Soak chia seeds in water or grind into a powder to use as a sauce thickener, protein breading or creamy pudding.
- Yogurt is a healthier substitute for tangy recipes that call for high-fat milk, buttermilk, sour cream or mayo. While Greek yogurt is healthier, kids often prefer the thinner texture of regular yogurt, which is still loaded with protein and probiotics to boost immunity and promote digestive health.
- For quick snacks, freeze a stash of lip-smacking popsicles from pureed fruit and 100 percent vegetable juice.
Expanding the Palete with Hidden Foods
Another benefit to hiding food is that kids are unknowingly expanding their palates. By slowly introducing subtle flavors, the taste won’t seem as foreign when they encounter the food in a different recipe. Start small with these simple foods:
Since it is so easy to get sneaky with vegetable-based soups, sauces and pastas, blogs and Pinterest pages overflow with recipe hacks. Add a can of V8 juice to spaghetti sauce, toss in creamy butternut squash with mac and cheese or whip avocado into chocolate pudding.
Add a more complex spectrum of nutrients to a meal by swapping out salty seasonings and high-fat butter for bold spices and fresh herbs. Oregano, thyme, basil, cumin, garlic, cayenne pepper and nutmeg are filled with antioxidants and have detoxifying properties. Fan favorites like sweet cinnamon and pure cocoa also have high antibacterial and antifungal properties. When finely chopped, grated or ground, these healthy foods can be mixed, baked or stirred into nearly every dish with a minimum amount of huffing and puffing from kids.
Most kids eagerly eat muffins for breakfast, snack or lunch. The beauty of muffins is that they work with any fruit or vegetable kids already like. If texture is an issue, puree fresh produce so that they don’t have to bite into crunchy chunks. Pro chefs often recommend adding organic baby food since the hard work of mashing is already done. Give muffins an extra nutritional punch by using yogurt, applesauce and honey instead of milk and sugar and zest up the flavor with nutrient-rich cinnamon or cocoa.
Shake, Shake Smoothies
Smoothies make great breakfast and snack foods that most kids love. Start with favorite flavors, such as bananas, apples and oranges. Expand to combining tangy fruits with bland vegetables, such as green grapes, pineapple and avocado with fresh spinach. Texture-sensitive eaters will want the ingredients blended completely smooth. To mask the taste of vegetables, make the drink with 60 percent fruit.
Introducing New Foods to a Moderately Picky Eater
Kids who shun fruits and vegetables simply to assert their independence may just need a little innovative coaxing to happily chow down. When bland vegetables are boiled, salted and dumped next to the yummy food, it quits being a fun and tasty experience. As often as possible, combine vegetables with the main meal, such as stirring corn into taco meat, topping pizza with olives or crowning cheese soup with broccoli. Another approach is to make quirky shapes and funny animals using a variety of dark green, red and orange fruits and vegetables.
The pediatric feeding clinic at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago advises “food chaining,” a method that gradually adds new items to the plate in order to simultaneously maintain and expand taste and texture. For example, introduce a chicken nugget superfan to other sizes, seasonings and sauces. As they become more comfortable with the variety, offer non-breaded chicken strips with familiar sauces. Progress toward other crusted proteins that have a similar flavor and consistency, such as pork chops or turkey breast, and then expand to other nonbreaded recipes. A study conducted by the clinic found that these small changes create food links that can quadruple the variety of food in a child’s diet.