10 food rules for kids who eat healthy at home

phoebe and estelleThe idea behind Foodlets has always been a testing ground for feeding kids; my goal was to uncover the secret sauce that turns babies, toddlers, preschoolers and even their older counterparts into tiny people who enjoy eating real food. People who are open to trying new flavors and eating vegetables, fresh fruit and whole foods like it’s no big thing. Less processed food, more homemade but not too much of either one. To learn how to sit, savor and appreciate good food. After four years of feeding babies, reading books, interviewing everyone and two years of blogging about it, I’ve figured a few things out. Not everything, but some tidbits are definitely good enough to share. Here are the food rules that work for us:

  1. Everyone (over the age of 2) eats the same meal. No special requests, no substitutes for anyone with all of her teeth. I do try to be fair (and stack the deck in favor of success) by adding a couple of choices and also paying attention to each person’s favorite ingredients so there’s always something for everyone in each meal.
  2. Add spinach to everything. Eggs, brownies, I’ll make anything “Florentine”. It’s not sneaky, because I tell the kids it’s going in. I’m just looking for new angles to get more of the good stuff into those tiny bodies. Ditto for wheat germ, flaxseed and chia seeds. Also, we eat whole wheat everything: pasta, bread, pitas. The kids don’t know any different and it’s so much better for them.
  3. Make it fun. Inspired by “French Kids Eat Everything“, we have tons of pretty little plates and bowls, special spoons and sometimes splurge on fancy paper napkins. There are parfaits and tea parties regularly. My goal is to make mealtimes enjoyable so the kids associate eating real food with pleasure. It’s working.
  4. Start with small portions. I give the kids only a bite or two of each thing and whoever wants more, gets more. This helps kids figure out when they’re actually full rather than me coaxing them into “just one more bite.”
  5. Serve new foods with flair. We often use the fancy little bowls for new foods: I give the kids one bite in a cute little dish. Then an idea from the brilliant book, “It’s Not About the Broccoli“, kicks in. The kids become critics and give a thumbs up, thumbs in the middle or thumbs down. And if they give a thumbs down verdict, I’ll say, “That’s okay. You can try it again another time and maybe you’ll like it better then.” Planting the seed…
  6. We cook all the time.  Since I only work part-time, this works for us but any family could create a cooking culture by doing weekly dinners, big weekend breakfasts, and so on. I cook breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every day; the kids see me doing it and right there they’re learning a lesson that real food is a priority for our family. Plus, it’s fun to let them help and that’s another lesson. My goal is for each person to have a dozen dishes they can make before they leave this house. We’ve got a while, which we’ll probably need…
  7. The table is a stress-free zone. Toddlers dumping their plates notwithstanding, the dinner table isn’t stressful because we’re not battling the kids over who eats what. The food is there and manners are encouraged but no one is yelling, or prodding. We’re either sitting, eating or talking. Sometimes singing. If this isn’t possible, whoever is having a hard time will be excused along with mom or dad and welcome to return when he or she is feeling more cooperative.
  8. Homemade is better than processed. Especially when it comes to snack foods, it’s easy to either give the kids real food — sliced cucumbers, dried cranberries, chunks of cheese — or make our own versions of crackers, fruit leather, DIY “Nutrigrain” bars and so on. Every time you can make something in your own kitchen, it’ll be fresher, purer and almost always healthier.
  9. Two snacks, maximum. Because little bodies burn through their calories in the day, I like to give a mid-morning and a mid-afternoon snack to avoid meltdowns. But constant eating is a big problem these days and I don’t want the kids to learn that habit. In fact, for the afternoon snack I like to stick to fruit and it can be as simple as apple slices or as sweet as bananas and strawberries on a skewer.
  10. The kids drink water and milk, period. Once juice and soda are off the table (literally and figuratively), it’s not even something to fight about. Our kids have two choices for drinks, they like both of them and best of all–they’re both healthy options.

Food is such a huge part of our lives that I can’t help but thinking about it, learning about it, and yep, writing about it. It’s bigger than just our family though. Food has huge implications for health, happiness, even our country’s financial well being. With obesity declared an “epidemic”diabetes affecting more Americans than ever and kids who might be the first ever generation of Americans to have shorter lifespans than their parents, Michael Pollan said “cooking might be the most important factor in fixing our public health crisis. It’s the single most important thing you can do for your health.” I would add it’s one of the most important things that we can teach our kids.



    • charityc says

      Hi Amanda! You’re so welcome and I hope that your son enjoys the spinach, among other healthy and pretty delicious fare coming his way. Come again and thanks so much for your note.

  1. says

    What timing! I am struggling a bit with getting my 19 month old to try different foods. She won’t try most new things but also gets bored with the same thing day after day…which makes for an interesting week! I love these ideas though, especially the “keep it fun”. *I* like pretty plates, napkins, etc. why wouldn’t she?! It’s funny what doesn’t occur to us sometimes. 1 question though:
    1) “add spinach to everything”…so, are you saying you keep frozen spinach on hand, thaw and add in or do you just always have raw spinach on hand? What have you found works best?
    Thanks Charity! I so appreciate this blog.

    • charityc says

      Hi Elizabeth, I’m so happy to get your question because I totally understand exactly what you mean. Yes, I do keep chopped frozen spinach (preferably organic) in the freezer and often have the fresh organic baby spinach in the fridge too. I’m a big salad eater so it’s handy to have both as staples. Either one wilts down easily in a bit of heat. For example earlier this week I threw a couple handfuls of the fresh baby spinach into some store-bought marinara sauce (I like the “Organics” brand or “Newman’s Own”, just to up the nutritional ante since I didn’t make it this time. I tore up the leaves a big but it wilted so small that it looked like basil really, and everyone ate it. (I love kale too but the flavor is too intense to just throw into things like I do with spinach.) Good luck to you and thanks for coming to Foodlets. Hope to see you again and often!

  2. Jen says

    Great post! I have an 18-month old and credit alot of these ideas as the reason he is such a happy, adventuresome eater!

  3. says

    Great article! I try my best to live by these rules. I’m a single mom and work full time, so unfortunately the kids are in daycare 5 days a week. They eat 2 meals and 2 snacks there every day. Of course they don’t follow these rules or get healthy whole foods there. My problem is they prefer the food they get there. So feeding them at home is always a fight. Any suggestions?

  4. Andrea says

    Love your ideas.. I too do not serve separate meals. We all eat the same food. I struggle with getting my 4 1/2 year old to just drink water. He wants milk and juice. I do make almost all our snacks from scratch. And they love them just as much as the premade one.
    Thanks for the great ideas.

  5. Janine says

    Hi. I love your approach to food and I think we have a similar approach. I have a 7, 4 and 1 year old. We aim for meals to be fun family time. Not stressful. No bartering. Everyone eats the same thing and they are expected to try everything but then they can decide what and how much (of what is on the table). We cook all meals at home, avoid processed foods, teach the kids to cook, involve them in menu planning and limit them to two healthy snacks a day. My older two are good eaters. My 18 month old is not. He basically only wants blueberries, bananas or pickles. I’m trying not to stress about it or control his eating, but it is unexpectedly hard because he is not gaining weight, he wakes up hungry during the night which makes him tired all day. So it effects all aspects of his life. I still have him at the table with us and give him what we have. I both offer to feed him and allow him to do it himself. I think I’m on the right track, but it’s not working so far with him. Any additional ideas come to mind? Thank you!

    • charityc says

      Hi Janine! I totally understand what you are saying. My 18-month-old is my hardest to feed right now. I always give him what we’re having but start with a VERY small portion. Like one bite. He either eats it (so I give him more) or refuses. If he does refuse, I do give him other stuff. (That’s why I said my rule is for 2-year-olds and up because I can better reason with them at that age.) BUT I think the important thing is to vary what you give as an alternative. Yogurt, bananas, toast, cheese, muffins, and so on. You want it to be filling so they don’t wake up in the night but not the same thing every time so they start expecting it (and not eating whatever you give them in the first place). Also, we always get farther with foods he can eat himself, especially with the older siblings sitting at the same table eating with their very own forks. Keep at it. Find a handful of things he will eat and rotate through those in the evenings and let us know how it goes!

    • says

      Just wanted to reply here, Janine and say you are in good company! My 19 month is old is super choosy too. She will absolutely not try 90% of our dinners so I do end up making something else for her, just so she’s eating something! It gets tricky. Hang in there!

  6. April says

    Thanks! These are great ideas. We already serve only one meal (I have told them I am not a short order cook). And we also stick to water and/or milk, and my kids love both!

  7. Kim says

    I personally do not have children yet, but loved the tips for future reference! Routine and structure is very important, but the best part is making it fun! I don’t necessarily agree that milk is healthy, but liked the idea of only having 2 drink choices with the last tip. Thanks for an interesting read!

  8. Martina says

    Great tips! I have a question…my son, 7.5yo was a great eater when he was younger. He got compliments on eating veggies, fruits, etc. Now, being older and more independent, he wants to make his own choices. I try to cook as much as I can but I do work full time so by the time we get home, it is 6.30 pm. Last year, we’ve been grabbing a bite from local places. Not fast food though. What do you suggest to do with a kiddo who if left to his own devices, will go for the less healthy stuff (he always only drank water, juice very diluted but only on occasion and he never really cared for juice anyway but now wants lemonade or even soda. At parties, he won’t pick from the veggie/fruit platter on his own, etc. I do talk to him about nutrition, he does go shopping with me, makes his own list of what veggies/fruits he’d like and eat but most of the time, the fruit comes back in his lunchbox. I do make him eat it before dinner (or he gets cut up veggies – which I am now considering to have him cut up himself, he loves to help in the kitchen!) and I do explain that it tastes so much better if he eats in during his first recess (snack time) because it is nice and fresh and cold from the fridge, etc. By the time 6pm rolls around and I pick him up, it does not look/taste as good as in the am. Anyway, I guess it is a process but I feel I can’t relax and watch him when he is making his own choices but don’t wanna be on him all the time either. It was much easier at younger age :-)

  9. Megan says

    What do you do if your child is hungry after dinner? I know as an adult that if I eat dinner at 5:30 or even 6 I am a little bit hungry for a bedtime snack. Do you have large suppers or is their bedtime early to where there isn’t time to get hungry before bed?

    • charityc says

      Hey, Megan! Our kids don’t typically eat a ton by the end of the day UNLESS they’ve had no snack or a fruit-only snack in the afternoon, which I’ve started focusing on more lately and it’s so much better than kids pushing food around plates after you’ve gone to the trouble of cooking! That said, we eat dinner early (5:30 or 6pm) and on a couple of occasions they’ve been hungry by bedtime, so I’ll let them have a slice of cheese or some bread (definitely nothing with sugar). Quick, no biggie, and into bed 5 mins later. My husband, however, doesn’t go to bed at 7pm and always has a snack in the evening. 😉

  10. says

    Just discovered your blog and love it! We are both new moms and beginning the journey of real food and babies – can’t wait to read more and follow along! Have no doubt we can learn a lot from you!

    • charityc says

      Thanks so much! Great to hear from you and good luck with your baby. Our fourth is just starting to eat solid foods and we’ve got a whole series of posts coming up with advice from some great authors and experts. Thanks again!

  11. Judy says

    Excellent article! So many great ideas! I especially loved your goal that everyone would have a dozen meals they could cook on their own by the time they were grown. My kids are grown now and I just want to encourage you that by making meals at home and the standards you’re setting, they will take that knowledge and build on it to make a countless variety of things! I passed on some specific recipes and ways of doing things to my children, but all three of them have surpassed me already in becoming great cooks! Many Blessings!

  12. swissmama says

    This is great and I love it, but how do you do it? organic or even just fresh foods are expensive especially with a bigger family, I do my best but my budget only goes so far for my family of 5. How do you do fresh yet cheap? Farmers markets, grocery stores and whole food stores are all sadly expensive, I still try but not yet to the level of all fresh all the time :-\

    • charityc says

      Hello and thanks for your note! How to do fresh yet cheap is such a good question. My kids are very young, so even though we technically have 6 people in our family we are still really only cooking (and eating) for about a family of 4, so that helps. But they’re getting bigger, so I hear you!

      I think FROZEN veggies (and fruit) are almost better than fresh. They are always picked and processed at exactly the right time (never too ripe, underripe, no bruises, etc.), so easy to store at home and of course, cheaper.

      Also, always buy what’s in season or on sale. In winter time, that’s a lot of hard squash, oranges and even pomegranates.

      Above all, do not feel bad about having limits on what you do. We all have limits, be it time, energy, money or all three, and that goes for every person I know. Keep cooking, keep going. You are doing great.

  13. Lindsey says

    I love your philosophy! I have been trying to incorporate the same ideals in our household, and you are helping me get there. Fun little plates and special serving dishes are a great idea…that will be my next move. Let’s have some fun with meal time!

    • charityc says

      Lindsey, thanks for your note! I hope these ideas work for you and by all means, let us know if they do–or if something else works better!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *