Stop cooking separate meals: try this strategy for eating healthy with picky kids

Posted June 21

So, you want to eat healthier but your child won't eat anything beyond mac and cheese and dino nuggets. What do you do?

I've talked to many women in this situation and without a doubt the majority have, at one time or another, eaten separate meals from their family. The kids get served grilled cheese and fries, while mom eats chicken and broccoli or maybe a pre-portioned commercial meal.

As a nutritionist and fitness coach, I see why this strategy is so appealing. It’s easy to give everyone what they want, prevent meal time battles and you stay consistent towards your goals. But as a mom (and as a nutritionist), I just can't get behind this strategy one bit.

For one thing, this strategy can be a lot of work. Cooking multiple meals each night can be painstaking. But that's not really the issue here. The big issue is what your kids are learning from you about their relationship with food.

We live in a diet obsessed culture where most young girls begin dieting when they are 8 years old. Research shows that dieting behavior in children puts them at higher risk for eating disorders, obesity, and even alcohol abuse.

Our children are always watching us, always evaluating what is acceptable behavior, what is normal and what is the "right" thing to do. If we teach them that dieting is a common, every day behavior we are training them young to have an unhealthy, disordered relationship with their bodies.

We also risk alienating our children from some of the healthiest and most delicious foods on the planet. Imagine your child watching mom eat salmon, brown rice and sautéed green beans while the rest of the family eats ravioli. This delicious, healthy food is now categorized by your child as "diet" food, or "punishment for not being thin" food, and not delicious, healthy food that everyone can enjoy.

Does that mean you have to abandon your personal health and fitness goals? Not at all. Here's what to do instead:

1. Think lifestyle, not diet

The word lifestyle is so overused; anyone who is trying to get you to go on a diet now says "it's a lifestyle" hoping you won't notice the difference. But the truth is- there is a difference. A lifestyle involves doing things that you know you can stick with in the long term.

The truth is most diets fail. 95% of people who go on a diet will gain all the weight back and more. The key to being in the 5% of people who keep the weight off is this: you have to keep doing what you did to lose the weight. Forever (sounds harsh, I know). If measuring out portion sizes or tracking calories doesn't seem like something you're willing to keep doing, then it's time to consider a different way of doing things.

By adopting a healthy lifestyle rather than going on diets you no longer put your children's health and relationship with food at risk.

2. Cook deconstructed/family style meals

One of the best tips I have for a family with different food preferences and goals is to plan meals that have a variety of options. Here are some examples: a taco bar means you can load yourself up on lettuce and create a taco salad while the kids eat tacos, or even just rice and beans. A pasta meal means you can choose to eat meatballs and veggies while the kids enjoy pasta and sauce. Chicken, fruits, veggies and dip means you can decide what foods to put on your plate and your kids can do the same.

3. Always have a fruit and veggie option with your meal

This helps your children have more exposure to the foods we generally want them to eat more of, and you have options for getting some extra fiber and nutrients into your meal too.

4. Always serve a "safe" food with your meal

If you have picky kids that are going to turn their noses up at fruits and veggies, be sure to include at least one option in each meal that you know they will eat.

When my toddler was going through his picky stage, there were about five foods he would eat, and we rotated them as part of dinner each night. By doing that, he sat at the table with us while we ate a variety of foods, and we let him decide when he would or wouldn't try other foods on the table. With time he got more exposure to the foods we were eating, and he now eats a delicious variety of foods at every meal.

5. Don't stress about what the kids eat or don't eat

If you want your kid to have a healthy relationship with food, repeat after me: "you don't have to eat it." Give them permission to decide what to eat, don't stress about the "healthy" versus the "unhealthy" foods, and model the behavior you want them to adopt. They will be curious and willing to try new foods in their own time, but not if you pressure them to try it.

Your fitness goals can either help or hurt your children in the long run, and how you approach it changes everything.

Sick of the diet struggle? Ashley Palmer is a nutrition counselor that helps people get off the weight loss roller coaster and achieve lasting results. Get her free guide book "Never Diet Again" at


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