Picky Eater? Here are 7 Ways to Sneak Good Nutrition Into Your Kids

Healthy Living

October 7, 2019

In June 2019, food giant Kraft launched a peculiar kind of salad dressing aimed at picky kids who shun their veggies. Kraft Salad Frosting is packaged in a colorful plastic tube that looks as if it may dispense slime or silly string instead of ranch dressing, which is what this curious squeeze bottle actually contains. The texture is creamier and the taste is supposed to be a bit sweeter than traditional ranch dressing, but there is something else making Salad Frosting unique: a marketing campaign encouraging parents to lie to their children for the sake of proper nutrition.

Before placing this new product on supermarket shelves, Kraft decided to invite parents to share the white lie strategies they use when they want their kids to eat their veggies. The #LieLikeaParent Twitter campaign was crafted as a contest whereby 1,500 Salad Frosting bottles were distributed to the parents who shared the most entertaining and effective tips.

The #LieLikeaParent campaign didn’t go over well with some parents, who felt that the last thing American families needed was to foster mistrust through white lies. Others pointed out that Salad Frosting could end up being too much of a good thing, with children smothering their salads in a fatty processed food with little nutritional value. Yet another set of parents mentioned that their children are too smart to fall for packaging tricks.

Nevertheless, every parent tells a white lie at some point, whether it’s the myth of Santa Clause or explaining what happens when a pet dies. And food lies are likely the most common lies of all – anyone with a preschooler knows that small bodies belie a mountain of stubbornness when it comes to eating the right foods. 

With all the above in mind, it’s important to know about some of the evolutionary and psychological factors that make children dislike vegetables, at least some more than others. 

Let’s think back to the time when humans were more exposed to toxic plants. In terms of evolution, our genetic response was to react to the extreme bitterness of poisonous plants. We are born with a propensity to thoroughly enjoy sweet flavors because they taste the opposite of potentially dangerous plants, and we don’t naturally lose these taste receptors until our late teenage years because that is when we are supposed to have learned to discern between safe and dangerous foods. 

This sensory aversion is not directly tied to psychological dislike for certain foods. Some parents inadvertently create personality issues that result in their children becoming picky eaters. Naturally, parents want their children to receive the benefits of healthy nutrition as early as possible. But this can be a challenge, especially as kids move into the toddler years and get settled into their likes and dislikes. 

There is nothing devious about the following recommendations. What you want to avoid is being overly pushy to the point of annoyance and frustration because this is when psychological aversion may start. If you’ve got a picky eater, check out these tips for getting them to eat outside the box.

#1 – Make Food Diversity a Priority

The last thing you want to do is get your children stuck on comfort foods such as macaroni and cheese, pizza, burgers, and chicken nuggets. The key is to introduce a diversity of good foods on a consistent basis. Even if you have to introduce vegetables over and over, this parade of new items showing up on your children’s plates will make them more willing to try them. This should be your main goal, and it is not as sneaky as it is strategic.

Even if your kids never touch the produce on their plates, keep offering them a variety of new foods. Over time, they may surprise you. Exposure is sometimes enough of a push to expand your kiddos’ palates.

#2 – Become a Veggie Smoothie Smuggler

Most children love smoothies and shakes, particularly when the consistency is similar to that of ice cream. Use your child’s sweet tooth to your advantage by blending up produce with your smoothies. Even spinach can be smuggled into strawberry or blueberry smoothies because their strong natural pigmentation and flavor will overpower just about any greens. 

But if you’ve got very discerning children – older toddlers and preschoolers have eagle eyes – stick with fruits and veggies like carrots, yellow squash, cucumbers and other lighter produce with mild flavors. They blend easily and won’t disrupt the taste of a standard smoothie.

#3 – Start With More Palatable Vegetables

Jumping right into boiled spinach is an abrupt strategy that’s bound to fail. It’s easier and more sensible to start off with safer produce, such as peas and carrots, and progress to more complex (and less sweet) options. 

If you sit down to eat with your children, a highly recommended strategy for encouraging good eating habits, let them see you eat broccoli, spinach and other greens so that they become curious. Once your children are ready to try a new item, you can transfer it from your plate to theirs as a sign of solidarity. Most kids love eating off their parents’ plates anyway, so this approach could prove effective.

#4 – Hide Veggies Within Recipes

Similar to fruit smoothies, meals with sauce bases can act as a vehicle for hidden nutrients. With a food processor, you can easily add peppers and zucchini in tomato sauce that you can mix with fun-shaped pasta like rotini, elbow macaroni and alphabet. When you’re making meatballs, try mixing in eggplant, onions, zucchini and basil. Adding these flavorful ingredients will result in a meal that your children will like more than plain meatballs.

Don’t be afraid to get creative when it comes to hiding veggies in plain sight. Pizza, for instance, can work wonders for some kids in getting them to try new foods, especially if you enlist your kids’ help in creating them. Children who learn how to be comfortable with food in the kitchen may be more likely to eat a more diverse range of it as they get older.

#5 – Transform Staples Into a Gourmet Meal

Have a kid who only eats mac & cheese from a blue box? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The orange-colored sauce that comes in packages of macaroni and cheese is ideal for smuggling pureed pumpkin, chickpeas and butternut squash. Adding pureed veggies to that powdered cheese sauce that turns the color of a basketball is a major improvement not only in terms of nutrition but also taste.

Adopt this approach with other childhood staples, too. Instead of sour cream on tacos, use plain Greek yogurt. It tastes the same but has more protein and more nutrients in general. Hot dogs come in all varieties, including veggie. For alternatives to sweet treats, try sneaking black beans into your brownies or making chocolate pudding using avocados – chocolate’s naturally dark color can hide all manner of things.

#6 – Use Purees (in Just About Everything)

Creamy tomato or potato soups are welcomed by many children because they subconsciously remind them of the soft meals they enjoyed as babies. There are many ways you can smuggle pureed vegetables into these soups. The trick is to make them very creamy and with a slight tangy or sweet flavor. 

To prepare these soups, start with chicken or vegetable broth before adding thickening agents like powdered milk and Greek yogurt. The healthy touch can come from a bag of frozen vegetable mix blended into a puree. 

Beyond soups, consider adding pureed foods into the things your kids will eat, both savory and sweet concoctions. It’s not the best way to build up your child’s palate, but it can be an easy way to slip in extra veggies and nutrients without changing the texture. For kids with sensory processing issues, texture can be a real problem. 

And don’t forget about homemade dipping sauces. These provide a prime chance to vary your kiddo’s nutrient intake. Puree some veggies and fruits and blend them together with dips your kids already like – it’s the same concept as that Kraft experiment without the ick factor of ranch-flavored “frosting.”

#7 – Pair Veggies With Less Preferred Foods

Keep in mind that your children probably dislike vegetables because they are used to eating tastier fare, and this is directly related to the development of their taste receptors. In 2015, researchers from Texas A&M University finished a longitudinal project that compiled data from thousands of leftovers found in school lunch trays, and the research findings make perfect sense. 

Whenever broccoli and spinach were served next to pizza, burgers and chicken nuggets, the veggies were ignored. When the main dish was meat loaf, stuffed peppers and other recipes that aren’t as kid-friendly, the veggies were far more likely to be eaten.

The takeaway here? Mix up your child’s dinner offerings. Include things she likes along with nonpreferred foods, but don’t go overboard in offering the preferred foods. In other words, don’t make the veggies so unattractive by comparison that there’s no way she’ll eat them. At the end of the day, feeding picky eaters comes with the standard advice for all of parenting: Model good eating behavior and keep at it. Your kiddos will (likely) catch on. Eventually.