Kids Eat Real Food Too

I teach workshops frequently as an Integrative RDN and love when attendees ask questions. Sometimes they put me on the spot and for me, it’s such a great opportunity to set the record straight on nutrition myths and misconceptions, go back to the research/science on some issues, and to state my professional/personal thoughts to answer other questions.

A couple weeks ago I was teaching a workshop in Ithaca, New York called “Healthy Meals in 30 Minutes or Less” and an attendee asked a question. She said “I work in an elementary school cafeteria and am so incredibly sick of the new school lunch mandates for whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Kids have to take the food and it ends up in the trash. Kids don’t like whole grain bread or steamed broccoli. What do you think?”

Oh my. I had to take a deep breath before I took this very open-ended question on. But I did. And I want to share my response (perhaps rant) with you. . .

Kids Eat Real Food
My little guy with a giant leek from the winter farmer’s market

When I was working on my Masters in Human Nutrition in Colorado, my thesis involved research in the schools. To be more specific, I spent a whole bunch of time in elementary school cafeterias evaluating what fourth grade kids were and were not taking, eating, and throwing away. It was astonishing and enlightening. I observed 1000+ kids, and learned that (these) kids don’t like mushy overcooked vegetables (who would blame them, right?); if they don’t know what it is, can’t name it, or haven’t tried it before, they won’t eat it; and if they don’t eat (or don’t have access to) fruit, vegetables, or whole grains at home, they probably won’t eat them at school either.

On another note, the brilliant marketing and food industries have taught us that after “baby food” comes “kid food” with “kid menus” and packaged “kid snacks” shaped like cartoon characters and “kid cereal” and “kid yogurt”. When kids who are used to consuming all of these processed food-like products at home and then they are served things like baked chicken on a whole grain bun and steamed broccoli for their school lunch, naturally they won’t be too thrilled. As a result, many parents pack their kids lunches with food-like products or healthy food their kids will eat. . . but I digress.

If you have babies/toddlers/kids in your life, here are a few key take-aways:

  • Did you know that it can take up to 12 to 15 exposures to a food before an infant/toddler/kid may like it? The lesson here is to not give up and keep serving a food EVEN if they “don’t like it”.
  • Start serving them healthy real food when they are young (or as young as they are right now). The more they consume healthy whole foods at home, the more likely they are to consume these foods when not at home and as they get older and start to choose foods on their own.
  • If all you give them is real whole unprocessed food, they will eat it (when they are young at least). My almost 11 month old’s dinner last night was cut up marinated chicken, lettuce, sauteed bell peppers and portobella mushrooms, and strawberries. He ate some of each. All of his choices were real whole food, but he had lots of choices including different textures, flavors, and colors. This leads me to the next point.
  • My 11 month old ate all of those foods for dinner (granted, I know he’s still young and hasn’t turned into a choosy toddler yet) and I ate them with him. Being a role model for healthy eating is SO important for babies, toddlers, and kids. Why would they want to eat it if you don’t?
  • And finally, make the food taste good! Veggies should be crisp-tender or raw, not mushy or floppy. Try roasting veggies in the oven, lightly steaming, or lightly grilling vegetables with a little bit of oil, salt, and pepper.

This is more or less (well, a lot more) how I answered the question at the workshop. Now, I want to hear your thoughts. Do you have any tips on how to get kids to eat more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains (versus processed refined grains)? Leave a comment below!

Erin Harner

Erin Harner is an Integrative Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), author, and speaker based in Ithaca, NY. Erin melds functional medicine and culinary nutrition to help her clients uncover their unique diet and confidently cook healthy nourishing meals that meet the needs of their whole family. Learn about Erin's services and connect on Instagram.

2 thoughts on “Kids Eat Real Food Too”

  1. Erin, I agree with your article about teaching the very young about fruits/veggies and whole grains. I have and still do pack my children’s lunches every day. I know, they need to learn to survive on their own, however, that is one thing I do not let them do on their own. I cut up fresh fruits and veggies every day with salad or hard boiled eggs, etc. kids have so many things going on, that packing a healthy lunch is not on their agenda, at least my girls. They’ll grow up soon enough so for me to keep them healthy smart is my job for now!

    Thanks again

    1. Jana- thanks so much for your comment! I agree with you 100% that for many parents, the best way to ensure that their kids are getting and eating fruits and veggies is to buy them, prep them, and pack them! -Erin

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