Oh, it’s not easy to feed kids sometimes. How can it be so hard? I mean, eating is biologically necessary and typically an enjoyable experience. So when a child’s hungry, why can’t I just slice up some apples, put out a little cup of almond butter for dipping, and bada-bing bada-boom - he’s eating a snack with some nutritional value? But oh wait, did I remember to peel the apple slices? Hmmm…and if I did remember to peel the apple, did I forget to dispose of the skin before my child saw it because he claims to “not even like” green apples despite that as long as he never sees the peel, he’ll eat any apple? And did I go crazy and think a little sprinkle of cinnamon on the almond butter would be a fun treat? I did. I did all of that. And so with a dash of cinnamon and a spotted sliver of green apple peel, snack time…is…ruined. Guess it’s time to tear open yet another snack pack of Pirate’s Booty and call it a day.
I didn’t fully realize how lacking my child’s snack game was until once at a park playdate, nearly everything I pulled from my bag to feed my toddler embarrassed me. It wasn’t as if I’d ripped into a Party Size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and topped off his sippy cup with Mountain Dew, but let’s just say that it was not my toddler sitting on the park bench happily crunching away on red pepper slices and garbanzo beans lightly sprinkled with sea salt and lemon juice. I know my mom-friend wasn’t judging me, but I decided then and there that I needed to increase the quality of snacks and expose my kiddo to a wider variety of nutritional foods. That moment crystalized how important to me it was to lay the groundwork for healthy eating.
Now, I’m no nutritionist, but we all know that eating a variety of whole foods and limiting added sugar and processed foods has great health impacts. That’s important to me for both myself and my children. Also, I want to expose my kiddos to a variety of foods so they won’t be that one kid who in middle school comes to your house for dinner and won’t eat the tacos because there’s onion chopped into the ground beef. Picky eaters are tolerable as children but become insufferable as they get older. (I realize I’m being hugely judgmental here and I did once advise my brother-in-law to break up with his girlfriend because she picked every tomato chunk off her cheese pizza and systematically brushed every minced garlic piece off her breadstick when we were on a double date. She was a 25-year-old woman at that point and I was selfishly looking ahead to every Thanksgiving meal we could potentially be spending together in which I would watch her surgically destroy good food. But back to the business at hand - feeding kids.) Exposing your kiddos to a wide variety of whole foods is a good thing both socially and nutritionally.
Now don’t get me wrong here - you will most likely be met with some resistance. Don’t expect to suddenly flip from a bowl of goldfish crackers every day to edamame and cherry tomatoes one day and cottage cheese with raspberries the next without a little pushback. And there’s nothing wrong with having some goldfish crackers in the snack rotation. But I’d say that rotation is the operative word here. Adding variety to your child’s snack time is an important step to lay the groundwork for a lifetime of good healthy eating habits. But it’s not the easiest thing to do, especially when you’re dealing with a sometimes irrational and hungry little person. So we compiled some straightforward and concrete ideas to transition your kiddos to quick and healthy snacks you feel good about them eating. As always, keep in mind the basic concept that whole, unprocessed foods without added sugar are best, but as with most anything in life, moderation is the key.
Eat a rainbow
Duh. I think we’ve all heard this a lot. Offer your children an array of colorful foods. (The real colors found in nature, not the ones found in the Paw Patrol fruit snacks.) Eating lots of colorful fruits and vegetables boosts your child’s nutrition with essential vitamins and minerals. (Wow - I just sounded like an infomercial!) But this is important, so strive to introduce colorful foods for your kiddo. You can get some much needed buy in from your child by making it more fun like letting her pick a color for the day and eating the foods that match it or even arranging a mini rainbow of fruits and vegetables to try.
Make a master list of snack options
Sometimes feeding a child snacks has made me feel like I was engaged in a bizarre game of psychological warfare - and losing. Losing to a miniature mastermind who pronounced little as wittle and couldn’t even tie his own shoes. It was not good for my self-esteem or even my general sanity. But then a nutritionist gave me this idea. Now hear me out - at first I was like uh-huh right, I’m not running a restaurant catering to a toddler, but out of desperation I tried it and it worked! Make a master list of snacks you feel good about your kiddo eating and then type it up and post it on a cupboard or pantry door. Put a little picture of the snack next to the item’s name so your child can identify each snack option. (Bonus, the picture next to the coordinating text helps with pre-reading skills!) Then, let your child choose his own snack. Having some control over what he eats is a great way to let your child feel empowered and in charge when being exposed to potentially new foods. To help make sure it’s a decently rounded snack, divide items up into categories - dairy, produce, whole grains, legumes, proteins, etc - and then aim for each snack to have an item from two different categories. Like you may go with black beans and yellow pepper slices or cheese cubes and blueberries. Your kiddo feels in control and yet you’ve curated a list of healthy snacks for him - who’s the mastermind now, toddler?!? The big caveat with this method is that you do need to be committed to having the snack options on the list in your house (at least until the system gets going well and you feel comfortable diverging from it slightly.) You also need to really be ok with your little one choosing whatever he wants off the list. So if you’re not ever going to be in the mood to deseed the arils from a pomegranate, don’t make it an option.
Vary textures and temperature
My daughter had some major sensory issues around food and some of the best advice from an occupational therapist I received for getting her to eat a variety of snacks was to vary the temperature and texture. I thought for months she just didn’t like cheese. Turns out my daughter didn’t like cubed or melted cheese. But if I gave her a pile of shredded cheese with some fruit on the side, girlfriend ate like a champ. So alter your presentation if needed to find the most inviting way to get your child to eat something - think matchstick apple slices instead of wedges, shredded carrots instead of sticks, crispy tofu instead of soft, etc. Also, changing up the temperature of foods may make them more appealing. Freeze yogurt tubes, a pile of frozen peas or frozen blueberries may be a lot more fun to eat than fresh ones, sauté apple slices and serve them warm. Just make sure and be mindful of your child’s chewing skills and abilities for safety reasons.
Stick a toothpick in it
Or put it on a kabob. Not exactly rocket science and this isn’t the most enduring of tricks, but something about a plate full of food poked with little teeny sticks makes it a lot more fun to eat. Grapes, mini rolls of turkey, small meatballs, cheese cubes, berries, banana slices - you name it, you can almost always skewer it.
Know that tastes will change
Some experts say that it can take as many as 10 exposures to a new food before a child will feel comfortable with it. So don’t consider your attempts as one and done if your kiddo doesn’t devour the lentils you put on his plate the first, second, or even third time. Patience, persistence, and positivity are important here. They’re also really hard to maintain. Kids' tastes change. I remember a drive home from Costco where I’d just purchased in bulk a box of organic (and not inexpensive) granola balls that my son had been scarfing down for the last two months only to have him refuse the pack and say, “No, I don’t like those anymore” with the same arrogant superiority at my stupidity for even offering such a thing as I imagine that Kanye might turn down my offer to put together an outfit for him. So yes, when feeding children, patience is necessary. There will be ruts and ebbs and flows, just stick with it...and know that you may be handing out 50 granola ball packs to Halloween trick-or-treaters.
Introduce something new with something familiar
New foods can be scary to kids. To lessen trepidation around a new food, you can piggyback on a favorite food. Say you make smoothies for your kiddos. Add some spinach to them and turn them green. Then when they encounter something green in its own right, like kale, they are already at least familiar with the color. (Admittedly, when I first offered kale to my son, he wondered why I was trying to make him eat “lawn”. Fair enough.) But doing something like mixing peas and carrots into brown rice or pairing sugar snap peas with hummus can ease a kid into trying something new when it’s surrounded by something familiar and preferred.
Don’t be too hard on yourself
So much of behavior is caught, not taught so keep in mind the examples you’re setting in your own eating habits and choices your kids see you make. I didn’t realize how vegetable-deficient my diet really was until I began eating in front of a vocal, tactless albeit cute audience everyday. I needed to be eating more whole vegetables. And I’d say my entire family all benefited when I began incorporating more of them into our daily snacks. But all in all, this is a marathon, not a sprint, so pick a few small ways to incorporate some healthy snacks into your kids’ lives and build from there. There will be times when you reach for something processed and ready to go because let’s be honest, a packet of applesauce or a granola bar survives an afternoon bouncing around in the bag a lot better than a ripe banana does. I’m also of the mindset that the more off-limits you make something, like a cookie or a packet of fruit snacks, the more you increase the taboo and desire for it. It’s always been my practice to not rule anything out, but rather try and teach some self-regulation and moderation. Again, I’m not a nutritionist or psychologist, just a mom who’s trying to not lose her mind over feeding her kids.
There’s no judgment here. We all choose our battles on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis with our kiddos. Snacks are inevitably going to be contentious at times and I say that if you do the best you can the majority of the time, it will all be good. Just maybe stay clear of the Cool Ranch Doritos and Mountain Dew until they’re in high school.