Healthy Eating, Part III – The five greatest motivators for preschool children to eat healthy foods

Preschool kids are known to be picky eaters, but there are ways to help. Here are my five greatest motivators for preschool children to eat healthy foods.

Preschool kids are known to be picky eaters. Some parents just give in and hope their darling will grow out of it. Others struggle to find ways to “make” their child eat healthy foods. Some just give up. Let’s get practical with my five greatest motivators for preschool children to eat healthy foods.

Motivators for pre-school children to eat healthy foods: #1 Imitation.

If the foods in the house are healthy, kids will pick their favorites from among healthy choices.

Motivators for pre-school children to eat healthy foods: #2 Tasty choices.

Often kids’ fruit alternatives are restricted to apples and bananas, and maybe grapes or oranges. Many kids love peaches, tangerines, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, plums, pears, watermelon, and pineapple.

Try spoon-sized whole wheat cereal, corn bran, or oatmeal with fresh berries. Try bran crispbread as a snack instead of crackers or toast made from white flour. Whole-grain pancakes can be a hit.

The younger you start, the quicker they will develop their tastes in these directions. During the preschool years, make butter a treat for vegetables. Butter on green beans makes them a lot tastier. Because of the “crunch,” many kids like raw carrot sticks all by themselves.

Motivators for pre-school children to eat healthy foods: #3 Fun presentation.

When feeding your kids, you are competing against multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns. Children’s TV has many commercials for sweetened breakfast cereals (“part of this nutritious breakfast”–which would be far more nutritious without the sweetened breakfast cereal!). Where are the commercials for fresh veggies? They’ll have to come from us. Preschool children often love food that is shaped like something interesting–a face, a clown, a dinosaur, a favorite hero, etc. Processed macaroni is manufactured this way because it sells. In this environment we need to make healthy food as appealing as the empty or harmful alternatives. Try a whole-grain pancake with a strawberry for a nose, kiwi slices for eyes, and banana for the mouth. Brush its teeth with the fork before eating (since after eating it won’t have any teeth left!). Try corn on the cob served standing up (it’s a rocket ship), or lying down with a toothpick stuck in the side (it’s a submarine–the toothpick is the periscope).

Motivators for pre-school children to eat healthy foods: #4 When all else fails, sneak it in.

This is not my go-to strategy, but when all else fails make zucchini bread or carrot muffins. Add shaved vegetables or pieces of fruit to virtually any baked good. Dried cranberries can be a hit (while dried fruit is high in sugar, it is also high in fiber).

A great way to hide fruit and vegetables is in whole-food smoothies and juices. High-speed blenders, such as the models manufactured by Vita-Mix (not juice extractors that take the pulp and fiber–and many nutrients–out) can turn fresh oranges, carrots, and yogurt into a delicious treat. Two recently published cookbooks, The Sneaky Chef and Deceptively Delicious, offer more ideas on how to hide the healthy stuff!

Motivators for pre-school children to eat healthy foods: #5 Give a daily multivitamin as a safety net in this processed-food world.

Vitamins are, by definition, compounds necessary in trace amounts for the normal functioning of the human body.

We need vitamins in order to see the world around us, to grow, to make bones and connective tissue, to fight infections and cancer, to heal wounds, to stop from bleeding to death, and to keep our teeth from falling out.

We are not self-sufficient. We depend on a steady supply from outside sources for these vital compounds. Vitamins cannot be manufactured in sufficient amounts by the body and must be taken in from the environment. They occur naturally in many foods and vitamin D is manufactured by the body in response to sunlight exposure. Vitamins are also available as commercial nutritional supplements.

While I have great respect for the results of modern nutritional analysis, I have greater respect for the longstanding relationship between humans and their natural foods. By eating whole foods (fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains, etc.), your child can get the necessary vitamins in the healthiest way. Vitamins occur in foods in forms that are the easiest for the body to use and are accompanied by important related compounds.

Toddlers and preschoolers are often picky eaters. As children grow, their tastes change, and over time they should begin to eat a more well-rounded diet. A vitamin “safety net” takes the pressure off feeding issues during the early years. Without pressure or worry, you can be free to be creative about increasing whole foods in your child’s diet, knowing that vitamins are present to help your child grow strong and healthy.

This isn’t to suggest that the battle is an easy one. Recently on Dateline NBC (an American television show), host Jane Pauley casually mentioned not liking vegetables as a child. While this phenomenon is as current as today’s news, it is also as perennial as our oldest nutritional records. I’ve heard it said that the ancient Greeks defined children as short humans who don’t like vegetables. :^) Now that we have mass advertising, children’s fun meals, and peer pressure, the battle is all the harder. But the battle is worthwhile, and it can certainly be fun.

The battle should never be with your kids. Never push. Entice them, persuade them, teach them. Battle bad nutrition.

More Information on Healthy Eating:
Healthy Eating, Part I – How important is good nutrition?
Healthy Eating, Part II – What foods do children need? What foods should be avoided?
Healthy Eating, Part III – The five greatest motivators for preschool children to eat healthy foods.
Healthy Eating, Part IV – Motivators for school age children and adolescents.
Healthy Eating, Part V – Good news for vegetable haters everywhere!

Last medical review on: October 26, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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