How to Get Your Kids to Eat Nutrient-Dense Food

January 19, 2014 Updated: August 2, 2019

I’ve observed a very dramatic shift in kids’ diets somewhere between baby food and most children’s menus. When our little ones start transitioning to solid food, they start with fruits and veggies—peas, carrots, spinach, green beans—you name it. Yet, somehow, from that point when they reach the children’s-menu age, the color fades from the plate-like a person about to faint.

From a palette of red, orange, green, purple and blue, we introduce white and brown foods and somehow forget all the gorgeous colors we once had. Hot dogs, pizza, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and fried this or that …

By this point, kids and parents seem conditioned to accept this as the norm. The question is, why do we settle for plates without substance, and are we taking them to the point of no palate return?

It’s time to get the substance back onto their plates.

kids eat healthy
Happy children prepares and eats vegetable salad. (Shutterstock)

Teaching the Taste Buds 

Taste buds are like muscles. They need to be conditioned, tested and strengthened so that they can take on new flavors.

I’m talking taste buds like Popeye’s that love sour, bitter, and umami flavors of spinach and the greens family, celery, seaweed, citrus, fish, mushrooms, and tomatoes. No wimpy Olive Oil locking arms here, drooping under the pressure of sweet and salty. That’s just too easy.

This idea that kids don’t have the taste buds for certain foods isn’t a matter of where they were raised—it’s how they were conditioned. It only takes looking around the world to see what other kids eat for a traditional breakfast.

In Japan, it’s seaweed, rice, and raw fish. In China, it’s congee, a rice porridge that can be seasoned with mushrooms and pork. In Egypt, it’s stewed brown fava beans with hummus, tahini, and pita bread.

Partaking in Preparation 

I love teaching kids’ cooking classes at Whole Foods. When I ask for volunteers to help me at the “chef’s table,” everyone’s hand goes up. They have such a desire to help, be creative, and be a part of the process.

They have no qualms about adding handfuls of spinach to a sauce or throwing broccoli into a sauté. Studies confirm that one of the most important ways of getting children to make sound food choices is involving them in the process. Children will be much more apt to try something if they’ve picked it or helped to prepare it.

As much of a challenge as it can be to haul your kids to the store or the farmer’s market, it’s a critical part of their connection to what you’re feeding them. When my daughter was 1, I’d sit her in the front of the grocery cart and hand her different fruits and veggies and recite the names so she could repeat them, hold them, and smell them.

By the age of 3, I would hand her a bag and ask her to pick a few of her favorite fruits. When we got home, I’d be sure to have her help wash one, and we’d immediately cut it up so she could try it. There’s pride in that.

It seems so simple, but there’s something about perception and the effort she took in picking just the right ones. And if she did it, well, of course, she was going to try it.

It just takes time, trial, patience—and a little creative energy—but it pays off in spades when it comes to health.

Getting Kids to Eat More Veggies 

1. Do It Raw. Try to get as much raw produce as you can onto your children’s plates so they can really appreciate the pure flavors.

kids eat raw veggi/carrot

The good news here is that kids love the crunch, and it’s a big time-saver because it’s one less thing to cook. Carrots, celery, cucumber, jicama, sugar snap peas, and bell pepper are all great veggie options. Some veggies, like broccoli and cauliflower, get more palatable with a light steaming.

2. Skinny-Dips. Offering a low-fat, high-flavor dunker for your veggies is the perfect way to get kids to indulge. It’s also fun. Remember, kids love to be creative, and taking a carrot stick to a spread is like dipping a paintbrush. Make-ahead dips like cucumber and dills Greek yogurt, sundried tomato hummus, and spinach pesto spread are great options that also pack a nutritious punch.

3. Get Saucy. One of the easiest ways to slip in a ton of veggies is into a versatile sauce. I combine fresh spinach, kale, zucchini, bell pepper, tomato, garlic, and onion to make the base for my pizzas, pasta, bakes, soups and stews.

You’ve got supercharged nutrition in there, but no chunks. Make extra and freeze it in ice cube trays for smaller servings.

4. Bake ‘Em In. You can’t imagine the shock on people’s faces when I tell them I put beets and sweet potatoes in baked goods. The great thing is veggies can substitute for fat and sugar in a lot of cases. By exchanging fat for veggies, trading whole sugar for natural sugar-free alternatives, and substituting whole grains for white flour, you can transform baked goods into functional foods.

5. Get Your Blender On. I can take coconut water or almond milk, throw in a couple of cups of fresh spinach, fresh blueberries, some high-quality protein powder, a little flax seed, some crushed ice, and I’ve got serious satiation in a glass in a minute flat.

We’re talking texture here. It’s smooth and cool and goes down really easy. You can also make blender smoothies and freeze them for a decadently delicious dessert.

Superhero Salad Bowl Smoothie

Green vegetable smoothie
Green vegetable smoothie. (IngaNielsen/

How can you get your kids to eat a salad bowl full of nutrients? Through a straw!

• 2 cups coconut water with pineapple
• 2 tablespoons Linwoods Flaxseed (flax, cocoa, strawberries, and blueberries is my favorite)
• 1 cup fresh spinach
• 1/2 banana
• 1 teaspoon powdered peanut butter. (I like the Just Great Stuff brand.)
• 1/2 cup crushed ice

Wash the spinach first. I like to Eat Cleaner All Natural Fruit + Vegetable Wash. Put all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth. Sip and enjoy.

Makes two 8-ounce servings

Children’s Breakfasts Around the World

Sweden: Slabs of whole-grain cracker bread with slices of cheese, pâté, and pickles.
Spain: Bread rubbed with garlic and tomato.
India: Tofu scramble or dal with chapattis.
Australia: Vegemite on toast.
Mongolia: The day wouldn’t start on the right foot without boiled mutton.
Uganda: Stewed bananas and cow organs.
The Bahamas: A plate of spicy prawns and grits is the breakfast of champions.
Mexico: Fried tortilla with sauce and eggs or chicken, called chilaquiles, or a dried spiced meat dish called machaca.
Peru: Ceviche made with raw, marinated seafood is a typical starter for the day.

Mareya Ibrahim is The Fit Foody, an award-winning chef on Everyday Health’s Emmy-nominated show “Recipe Rehab,” and author and founder of Her book “The Clean Eating Handbook,” a guide on how to eat cleaner and get leaner, was released in May 2013.

*Image of little girl eating watermelon via Shutterstock