Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Cooking up a solution to the dinner dilemma

kids children eating habits how to get children to eat healthy kid food book advice

Story At A Glance

  • Feeding children healthy meals they’ll actually eat can be a daily challenge.
  • Banishing the notion of “kid food” can make it easier, says Elias Siegel.
  • There are many ways to get kids to eat more healthful — and adventurous — foods, from experimenting with presentation and preparation to consistent parenting.

It’s five o’clock. Do you know what your kids’ dinner is? If that question strikes fear into your heart, you’re a parent. For many of us, feeding our children is a daily crisis, fraught with financial issues, mercurial palates, behavioral problems and an endless series of bribes and tradeoffs. Is it better to wage war with your children in order to get them to eat a single floret of cauliflower or send them to bed with a bellyful — even if that belly is full of pepperoni pizza?

Parent and seasoned blogger Bettina Elias Siegel has spent years researching this topic and tossed everything she learned into a new book called “Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World.” As a parent of three small children, I was eager — even desperate — to talk to Siegel about what she’s learned.

Let’s start at the beginning. The subtitle of your book mentions our “highly processed world,” but what counts as “processed food,” and is it all bad?

That’s a good question because there is a ton of confusion about to what degree processing is harmful or beneficial. And in fact, a lot of processing is great. It improves food safety and convenience, and we couldn’t live without it. The way parents can

think about it is there’s a spectrum. On the least processed end, you have something like a baby carrot, which is washed and peeled. That’s processing, but it’s obviously completely harmless. And you can go all the way to the other end of the extreme, which is, say, a Fruit Roll-Up that’s artificially colored and flavored. So it’s really the stuff that’s toward that end of the spectrum that we have to be thinking hard about when feeding our kids.

In my experience, the hardest part about feeding kids is that every risk you take— new foods, healthier spins on old favorites — sets you up for some combination of hungry bellies, having to prepare a second, less nutritional meal, or wasted ingredients, money, and time. Please tell me some “life hacks” that will fix everything in two minutes or less while this mac and cheese finishes in the microwave.

I always need to preface these answers with, I’m not a trained child-eating expert. I’m a parent. At times, back when my kids were little, a beleaguered parent. And these answers are based on my own research in writing “Kid Food,” but also my own experience. So what I’ve gleaned from all of that is that, as tempting as it is, it really is not a great idea to resort to the short-order cooking. That is, “Oh, you don’t like what I’ve prepared, honey? Let me jump up and put the mac and cheese in the microwave.” 

And it’s not so much that the mac and cheese itself is harmful for kids. Obviously, those foods belong in everyone’s diets, and they’re delicious. It’s that every time you do that, you’re continuing to set up a message for kids that there are two kinds of food — their food and then adult food. And you’re also, I think, sending a message that neither of you really believe that your kid is capable of partaking in the family meal. 

You’re almost saying, implicitly, “I don’t think you’re up to this, and neither do you, so let’s just resort to the old favorites.”

Some of the tips that I learned, and that I’ve written a lot about on The Lunch Tray, is to try to offer family meals that are customizable. That way, everyone’s going to be able to eat what they want, but you’re still keeping the fiction of everyone sitting down to the same meal. But that fiction is important because it is telling kids that we’re all sitting down together, and I’m giving you — night after night after night — an opportunity to grow and learn and join everyone in the same meal.

A good example is a taco bar. So you put down all the things that go into tacos, including the chopped lettuce and chopped tomatoes, and the meat and everything. Maybe your kid passes up the lettuce and tomatoes, and they just put cheese in their taco, but that’s still better than saying, “I know you don’t eat lettuce and tomatoes, so here’s the cheese taco I prepared for you.” You want to let them grow into participating in the family foods. 

It seems like there are two aspects to this — one is getting kids more involved in the family meal for the psychology of it, and then the second aspect is nutrition. So how many cheese tacos in a row can your kids eat before you start worrying about the beans and the chicken and the healthier components?

This is where I always want to tell parents, listen, there are wonderful books and websites out there from accredited child feeding experts and registered dieticians, which I share in the appendix to The Lunch Tray. Because that’s absolutely right, you don’t want to just ignore if your child seems to be eating a diet that’s completely unbalanced. And I think there are all kinds of ways that you can help try to boost consumption of healthier foods like fruits and vegetables. 

I think one issue is variety. Just because your child has rejected what you thought was very tempting broccoli with cheese sauce, and it ended up being a nonstarter, doesn’t mean you can’t try serving the same vegetable in another way. Roasting broccoli brings out its delicious, caramelized sugars and makes it crunchy, and that’s a whole other way that kids might approach that food that you haven’t yet offered them.

So I think one way is just to keep shaking it up. Keep trying new ways to offer healthier foods. Another is to build on the foods that they like. So if you know your child will eat a particular food, adding in a healthier component they haven’t yet explored to that food, that bridging is another way to get kids interested in new foods.

Everybody’s afraid of raising a picky eater, including and especially me. But you say that the very notion of “picky eating” undermines kids’ diets from an early age. Can you explain that?

One thing I learned from a book that I love called “First Bite: How We Learn to Eat,” by an author named Bee Wilson, is that there are all kinds of completely normal developmental stages that babies and toddlers go through that parents very understandably perceive as picky eating, even though in fact they’re entirely normal behaviors.

And then once you have it in your head that, “Oh no, I have a picky eater,” I think what happens is you start to consciously or unconsciously limit what you serve. And that can compound in your head, and also in your child’s head. So that’s one issue.

Another issue that is less talked about but very important is that the processed food industry loves to reinforce this notion that kids are picky. It tells us, “Hey parents, just throw in the towel and give them the foods that we make, that of course they’re going to love, because they’re hyper-palatable, and very processed, and just easy.” I went through all of these recent food ads, and it’s quite blatant how often that messaging comes through. And I think that’s really insidious, because it reinforces the parents’ notion that kids won’t eat healthier foods, and it benefits the processed food industry to have you think that. 

Most of what we’ve talked about has pertained to life in the home. How about when parents get brave enough to take our kids out to a restaurant?

That’s really what motivated me to write “Kid Food,” because even when a parent has nutrition education and has access to healthier food and can afford that food, which rules out many, many families in this country, you can still face all kinds of challenges. Because the outside environment seems to be working quite methodically against the goal of raising a healthy eater, and it can be very, very frustrating. At a restaurant, I recognize that children’s menus are very beneficial for families because they offer affordable items, smaller items, but there are other ways you can approach it. 

You could refuse the children’s menu and then, from appetizers and side dishes, you could try to put together a healthier meal for your child. Or, given how big portion sizes are these days, you can also offer your kid a part of what you’re eating, and they can be completely satisfied with that amount of food. You could sell it to your kids by saying, “You know, you’re not a baby anymore. You don’t need that baby menu. You’re able to have all of these foods now, all these exciting foods that adults get to have.” In other words, it really is infantilizing to children that we give this message that you can only eat from this tiny subset of foods.

Are there a few general things to avoid that would make us all healthier and happier?

I think precisely because it’s so prevalent outside the home, avoiding this notion of “kid food” as much as you can in the home is helpful. Because you don’t want to compound that message. Depending on how motivated a parent is, one chapter in the book is devoted entirely to the kinds of small-scale but very important advocacy that you can engage in in your own child’s daily life. Whether it’s approaching that teacher who’s handing out candy or talking with the soccer coach about cleaning up the snacks and sugary sports drinks.

I’m the chef in our family, and I know how much work goes into every meal, as I know you do, so what is your pitch for parents who are just tired and maybe just don’t have it in them to do this? What is the payoff? Why do we want to make this extra effort for our kids?

I’m so sensitive to the fact that parents are overworked. Some families, parents are working two jobs. Cooking can be pleasurable but also, after a long day at work, it can be exhausting. So I don’t blithely say, “Oh, you should cook family dinner every night!” I realize that’s a tough ask for a lot of families. That said, there are so many benefits. For one thing, when we cook our own food, it tends to be by its very nature healthier, because we’re not as liberal with the unhealthy ingredients as a restaurant would be, or as the processed food industry would be. So for one thing we’re just doing our bodies and our children’s bodies a favor by cooking our own food.

I think also, if we don’t know how to cook, and our kids don’t learn how to cook by osmosis or observation, then they’re going to be at the mercy of restaurants and processed food for their entire lives. So that’s another reason why cooking is so important. And then finally, as we were talking about, when you sit down together to a meal that you’ve cooked, kids just get to learn by observation and experimentation what healthy food looks like. 

All of that said, there are ways you can make it easier on yourself. Batch cooking on the weekends so that you have things ready to go when you get home. Using a slow cooker so you can put stuff in it in the morning and dinner’s ready when you get home. Relying on things that are bagged and precut, if you can afford it, is a huge boon for families. Not being afraid of using canned foods and frozen produce can make cooking so much faster. So there are ways to keep it really simple but still healthy and delicious.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Bettina Elias Siegel’s “Kid Food: The Challenge Of Feeding Children In A Highly Processed World is available for purchase.