How To Get Kids to Eat Real Food Without the Battles

I think we can all agree that we want our children eating the healthiest food possible, but unfortunately, information on how to practically do it, day-to-day, meal-to-meal is not widespread. Here are my tips and tricks that have worked for my family. My kids eat about 98% real food, and you and your family can, too!

How to Get Your Kids to Eat Real and Healthy Food Without the Battles

Mamas and Papas, You’re Not In Time Out

First, I want to start by saying that there is no guilt here, no finger pointing, no putting you time out. Our culture is so accustomed to eating processed food as part of our very busy lifestyles (which don’t have to be, in my opinion) that we don’t even think twice about it until a health crisis occurs. Does that make you a bad mother? No! Just an uninformed, busy one doing the best she can. Just remember that every morning is a new morning with a fresh start. So, I don’t want you to feel guilty about food mistakes of the past, chose instead to focus on how you’re going to change them, one step at a time.

And this is a lifestyle commitment. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen without struggles and fights (and I’m rhyming, oh yeah!). You’re probably going to have setbacks, times when you cheat, but keep at it. It might take more effort than you’re used to, more time, more money. But if we don’t have our health, life is much less enjoyable, so it’s worth it all to me. Many are willing to buy nice cars, new clothes, electronics, etc. but complain when real food is more expensive. That logic doesn’t make sense to me – a new car won’t help me live long and feel well but good food will.

It’s Not Perfect At My House Either (No Shocker There!)

Do these tips work all the time or solve every food-related tantrum? Yep, this is magical. Ha! Nothing is a magic bullet. My kids do eat very healthy, but we still have battles when they are very tired or hungry. I want to be very clear and to not leave the impression that we’re all “Leave it to Beaver” around here. Smiling, happy, cooing at the dinner table, soft elevator music playing, eating all our veggies, etc. We do allow them to cheat and go to Chick-fil-A several times a month (but we order grilled chicken nuggets, all share 1 large French Fry, get fruit cups and drink water), they eat what friends serve at their houses, and we sometimes go out for ice cream or the very occasional pizza (usually gluten-free). Thankfully, they do not have major food sensitivities or allergies, but those who do must be very strict. Anyway, I’m not the perfect mom and still struggle with how to do the real food thing.

The Two Most Helpful Tips

Mom and Dad Set the Example

Yep, dads, that goes for you, too. If you don’t like the new changes, then eat what you want at work or in your car. I found pretzels and chips in my husband’s car trunk a few months ago, and I first I thought I should be mad. Then I realized it was a great compromise and I needed to relax!

I’m a firm believer that any behavior or habit I want my child to exhibit, I must do myself. I want them to say please and thank you? Then I have to thank them when they obey and say please when I ask them to do something. I’ve found it’s the most natural and easiest way to parent. So, eat what you want your children to be eating. Simple as that. I’m always grabbing carrots and avocadoes to snack on, and my kids copy me.

No Junk In the House. Period.

If it isn’t there, you can’t grab it when you’re desperate. Once the old, bad food is used up, don’t buy it again. I did this with chocolate bars – dark chocolate Lindt bars used to be my vice, my drug. Loved those things like they were my children. I struggled for a few weeks trying not to buy them, then caved and ate them for a week. It set me back, but I got back on the bandwagon and tried again and finally conquered the cravings. But if they were back in the house? There is NO way I would’ve beaten it!

Tips for Healthy Eating to Switch to Real Food with Kids

Some Strategies To Make the Switch

First, Communicate & Show Gentleness and Grace

As you switch over, which could take a period of several days, weeks or even a month depending on which strategy you choose, communicate with your kids along the way. You are changing a habit, a lifestyle, like choosing to quit smoking. It is a big deal. Your kids are going to need to you be there for them – be firm but kind. It’s not a battle between you and them – children eat how we allow them to eat. They are not the problem. When children feel like you’re arbitrarily making their lives miserable, it will make it much harder. Help them to understand as best as you can.

I tell my oldest (who’s 4) that there are foods that are very unhealthy and can make him sick, so we don’t eat them. For instance, we were at a friend’s house and there were lots of doughnuts. When we are out of the house, I do allow my kids to have treats as this is what my husband and I have agreed upon. I let him have half of a doughnut and then he asked me if he could have more. I used my line – “No, those are unhealthy, Gabe,” and he shrugged his shoulders and walked away without a fight. I’m not usually consistent (not in my DNA!) but with this I have been and it works. Now that he eats very healthy, he’ll tell me his stomach really hurts when he eats something he’s not used to eating, which is great because he has little desire to eat unhealthy food.

Strategy 1: Slow Elimination

Once you’ve made the commitment (and hopefully have spousal support…) to change to real food, decide to stop buying processed food first and eat what you’ve got left in the house (that’s already opened). When one food runs out, replace it with a real food. For instance – say you have three boxes of cereal left open. Continue eating them, but tell your kids that soon you will no longer be eating cereal. It will be replaced with eggs, homemade sausage, yogurt, quiches, frittatas, bacon, etc. This is how we made the switch and it took about three weeks before all the processed food was gone. Then all the rest that was unopened, I donated to my local food pantry (which felt strange donating food I feel is unhealthy to the poor, but I didn’t feel right about throwing it in the trash either. Maybe you have a better idea!).

Pick a Food and Throw It Out

Is there one food in particular that you just know HAS to go? Then go ahead and throw it out. Replace it with a real food. For instance – say your kids love to eat hot dogs every day for lunch. Say, “Sorry, sweeties! All the hot dogs are gone now. Instead, you can have this peanut butter and honey sandwich.” Some with pitch a fit, throw a tantrum or worse. But you’ve got to stick to your guns. They might go hungry at lunch for a few days, but they will not starve, I promise. Eventually they will learn you mean business and they really aren’t going to get another hot dog. Just remember to be patient, loving and kind or the situation will get even worse. Or maybe you’ve got a laid-back kid or younger kid who will comply – consider yourself lucky! Maybe wait a few days or a week before choosing another food and explain that mom and dad are no longer going to be buying that food because it is unhealthy.

Again, it is SO much easier to stick to your guns when the tempting foods no longer exist in your house.

No More Dreaded Mealtimes

Have a No-Thank-You Helping

My husband says his mom was very calm about meals and he doesn’t remember many battles. In order to avoid fights, she had a rule that they had to have one spoonful of the meal to try it before getting something else. I think that is a fair way to make sure kids are introduced to new flavors and textures, but they also won’t go hungry. In general, she did cook things she knew her children would probably like, which makes it much easier. We have been trying that rule in our house and it works very well, though they will still fight us when they are very hungry or tired.

There are several vegetables that my kids will always eat – broccoli, carrots, and green peas. So, I serve one of those with dinner almost every time so I know there is something healthy on their plates that they will eat. Then, I ask them to a have a no-thank-you helping of the main meal, and then let them have something that’s really easy to make like a peanut butter sandwich on sprouted bread or a bowl of yogurt (plain, organic, whole milk sweetened with raw honey) if they don’t like the meal. So far, this is working for us and I’m happy with it. Again, the key is to only have healthy options to choose from when they don’t like the meal. Don’t buy anything that you don’t want your kids eating because they will either catch you eating it or find it themselves!

My Merry Messy Life: Lazy Menu Planning for Families - Guest Post

Meal Planning is KEY

Meal planning saves my sanity, ya’ll. It is awesome. There are weeks now and then (like this one!) where I don’t get around to it and just buy a bunch of groceries and painfully regret it. I find I’m stressed ALL week long because I don’t know what’s for dinner! I wrote all about how I plan a week’s worth of meals in just 10 minutes a week at Inner Child Food. When meals aren’t planned, you’re much more tempted to grab something already made from the grocery store (and they are full of strange things), fast food, or order pizza.

Ideas for Real Food Meals and Snacks

I have a whole section on the blog dedicated to real food recipes – click here to see them all! Are you a Pinterest junkie? Then check out my board where I share lots of fantastic recipes, many of which I’ve used. And stick around while I continue to write posts like - Real Food Snacks for Kids (that adults will like, too!)! Want to know what real food actually is? Check out my article – How I Ditched Processed Food and Switched to Real Food.

What are your struggles and fears? Do you have any tried-and-true tips? Please share in the comments below!

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Comments

  1. Do you have any tips for older children. My kids are 9, 13, & 15. I also have never liked vegetables so this would be hard for me as well but I really want to be healthy and teach my kids healthy habits.

  2. I am so glad I came upon this page. I actually came to the site to find the recipe for homemade deodorant and dishwasher soap because I couldn’t find my copy. I have just decided to do a paleo diet and to try and get my family on board. My oldest child, age 5, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes back in October. He has had eczema since he was probably 1, and he also has immune deficiencies (IgA deficiency to be exact). While reading about paleo for myself I found that autoimmune diseases, such as eczema and t1d, can be caused or triggered by grains and dairy. I also have a baby who will be 1 next month. She has already been switched to soy formula due to a milk allergy and she also has eczema starting. These reasons have pushed me to convert the whole family. My oldest is usually a very picky eater and loves his breakfast cereals and PB&J sandwiches. Cutting dairy and grains for him is going to be hard, but with these suggestions I think we can manage. I made salmon tonight for dinner and he loved it! Who would’ve thought?

    • Wow, that’s great, Dana! I mean, great that salmon went over well. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s great that your kids still are very young, even your five-year-old. I meant to write that it took my kids about 3-4 days before they accepted we weren’t eating cereal anymore and were happy with the alternatives, so it really wasn’t long in the scheme of things. Sounds like the Paleo diet is perfect for you guys. I have been on the GAPS diet, which is recommended for families like your’s. It’s almost exactly like Paleo, but adds in other things to heal the gut.

  3. You mentioned peanut butter and honey, I wanted to let you know that adding fresh strawberries to that sandwich is really yummy. My kids think it is a treat. We also buy allot of fresh ingredients and then freezer crock pot them. With a busy schedule, that makes a healthy dinner so much more convenient.

  4. Now, how about tips for getting that spouse on board? My husband grew up eating McDonalds & Pizza nearly every night. I don’t think he had had a piece of fruit for at least 10 years before we met. So far today he’s had an entire box of Chocolate PB Pop Tarts, 5 cups of instant coffee and a half dozen no bake chocolate cookies… And for lunch he wants to order a burger, fries, o-rings and soda… As him what he want’s for dinner… He wants meatloaf and potatoes with gravy… I make salads and veggies and ALWAYS have tons of fresh fruits around. He won’t eat them. If I mix veggies in with a casserole or something, he picks them out. I’ve even caught him picking tomatoes out of spaghetti sauce before. He doesn’t believe that eating has anything to do with health. He says “I grew up eating fast food and I’m perfectly healthy.” And with the exception of a birth defect (which has nothing to do with his diet) and an old spinal injury from an accident he is healthy. And he thinks I’m a “mean mom” because I make my kids eat their veggies before I will let them have seconds of meat, pasta, rice or bread at dinner… So seriously, if anyone has tips for getting a stubborn hubby on board, I’d love to hear them!

    • You’re in quite a pickle, Sabrina :). Would he be willing to watch Food, Inc. or Food Matters? Would he read articles on the internet about eating healthy? If not, and you’re already modeling it for him, you’re doing about all you can do because he is a grown man. However, you can refuse to buy that food for him. If he wants it, he has to buy it himself. But only you know what boundaries are okay to set because you certainly don’t want to create a war over it. I would let a movie do the talking. Another idea is there is a fantastic nutritional program that many chiropractors offer called Maximized Living. If you could find one in your area and get him to go to just one class or presentation, maybe he’d get on board. They help you step-by-step to eat better. I have also posted your question on my Facebook page to get you some help there. Let me know if anything works!

  5. Deb beyer says:

    What a lovely, helpful article. Its a shame I didn’t think of this since I’ve done it all wrong and sent the kids running to unhealthy foods. I still will try your suggestions anyway. I’m trying not to be the food natzi from now on.

  6. My son is a pretty healthy eater but there are a few things he won’t try because the way it looks like soup. I really love the idea of the “no-thank-you helping”. I’m going to try to add that.
    Btw, I love your ideas/recipes. I’ve gleaned a lot from your posts. Thanks! :)

    • Good to hear, KC. My kids won’t eat soup very much, either, and I love making it because it’s so healthy and so easy! But that’s okay, I will just keep offering it to get them used to it. So glad my recipes and ideas have helped you!

  7. My kids are grown now, so these are all things that I did successfully. #1: I re-named food. Brusselsprouts became “hero buttons”. Peas — don’t EVER say that word and associate it with food (I did it and my kids refused to eat urine). We changed the name to green balls. Spinach was Popeye food.

    #2: Make raw white honey a staple. I make salad dressing with raw white honey, tahini, olive oil and lemon pepper. I always have to make extra salad.

    #3: When you make salad, add chopped up fruit and nuts. Make sure you make extra.

    #4: My kids favorite treat was peanut butter on apple quarters.

    #5: Teach your older kids to cook and bake. Have them bake a cake from scratch and then look at the ingredients from store-bought.

    #6: My most successful tip is to take your kid to a chiropractic nutritionist. Foods that they are allergic to will be an addiction to them because they are poisons. My daughter was allergic to corn syrup (not even HFCS) and NutriSweet. My angel became a frothing-at-the-mouth psychotic if she had either one. She would steal money to go to the candy store to feed her addiction. This was not about right or wrong, this was about an 8-year-old’s addiction. It took time and patience but we got through it. If you know which foods your child is allergic to, you can remove those from your house and gather support from your friends, neighbors, school and local stores. I live in NJ, where we have a reputation for being unhelpful, but when I explained the situation, everyone rallied.

    My older kids were more disciplined and quit on their own. I gave them substitutes. Example: My son and I are allergic to dairy. I add lemon pepper to foods that rely on dairy for their flavor and it obviates the need for dairy. Try gluten-free pasta with clams, cilantro, olive oil and lemon pepper instead of parmesan.

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