How to Get Kids to Eat 'Adult' Foods

Kids tend to eat more healthy food if they understand its health benefits, research has found. mcimage/Shutterstock

I am a huge fan of homemade baby food, but there comes a time when children need to start sharing the same meals as the rest of the family.

Doing so, however, is sometimes a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, you'll find opportunities for fun and adventure in the kitchen — helping your kids discover new foods and hopefully also teaching them how to cook. On the other hand, you may suddenly find your culinary choices narrowing now that you have to cater to both kids and adults at one sitting.

My husband and I, for example, found it to be a rough transition. Pre-kids, we had been pretty adventurous cooks: Thai green curry, spicy chillies, the occasional elaborate three-course meal. Now that we're cooking for four, including a meat-hungry 2-year-old and a spice-averse 4-year-old, we have to edit our own meal plans to consider everyone's tastes.

Here are a few pointers that can help ensure everyone is happy and well-fed:

Don't be a short-order cook.

If a child knows she can simply refuse to eat, and that you'll cave in and cook what she prefers, you'll find yourself struggling to get them to eat anything else. It can be a tough rule to follow if your child isn't eating, but I always recommend a simple division of responsibilities: The adults decide what to eat; the child decides whether to eat and how much to eat. If my children decide they don't like something, they can refuse it (after taking a taste), but they do so knowing they won't be getting a substitute meal.

'Thank-you bites' are not optional.

Having said that my children can decide whether to eat, we do have one simple rule: We try at least one bite of everything on our plates. This ensures children are at least introduced to new foods and have the opportunity to make an informed decision.

Sometimes they surprise themselves. The other week, my 4-year-old, who usually doesn't like meat, took a bite of a cider-brined pork chop. "This is my favorite way to eat meat!" she exclaimed, before gobbling it all up.

Respect your children's opinions.

I don't like okra. My husband isn't a huge fan of salads. It would seem silly to assume our children don't have similar likes and dislikes. Just because we say adults choose what is served at the table, it doesn't mean we don't seek input from our children. In fact, talking about the different tastes and textures of food is an important part of a child's nutrition education. If your child says he doesn't like Brussels sprouts, don't cook him Brussels sprouts every night. If he's not a big fan of lasagna, then don't make lasagna all the time. And if he loves hot dogs, then serve hot dogs occasionally. But remember, children's tastes change — so it's important to keep putting new foods in front of them, and to try reintroducing foods they've previously rejected.

Don't label foods 'adult' or 'kid-friendly.'

It's easy to assume children won't like more strongly flavored or exotic foods, but they'll often surprise you. Don't set negative expectations by telling your children they're not going to like something before they've had a chance to try it.

Explain the health benefits of food.

If your kids won't eat nutritious foods, make sure they understand why those foods are worth eating. Statements like "Eat your lentils if you want to grow bigger and run faster" are more effective at getting kids to make healthy food decisions than just repeatedly presenting the food without conversation, according to a 2019 study. Kids between 3 and 6 years old ate twice as much healthy food when they were told how it would benefit them in terms they could understand, the study found. "Every child wants to be bigger, faster, able to jump higher," lead author and Washington State University researcher Jane Lanigan said in a statement. "Using these types of examples made the food more attractive to eat."

Provide some options.

Just because we don't cater to our children's every whim does not mean we shouldn't serve foods they like. Usually, if we're serving something I think may be a stretch for my kids, I try to at least make a side they will eat so they don't go completely hungry. Even if it is just bread and milk, having some simpler sides alongside more "challenging" foods can be a good way to hedge your bets.

Allow yourselves DIY date nights.

It's important to serve kids' favorite foods from time to time, too, but there's only so many times I can eat fish sticks or grilled cheese for dinner. That's why my husband and I will allow ourselves a DIY date night every couple of weeks, cooking the kids something easy, packing them off to bed, and then relaxing over something we want to eat. Besides allowing us to enjoy some of the meals we used to cook, it's also an opportunity to eat without mopping up milk spills or arguing over "thank-you bites."

And that's good for everyone in the family.

Jenni Grover, MS RD LDN, is a registered dietitian and director of nutrition at LifeStyle Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.