Turning Your Kids into Real-Food Foodies

Earlier this week I wrote a guest post for my friends Matt and Stacy (aka Paleo Parents), here is the post for those of you that missed it:

Meet Oliver. He turned four years old last month, and has been eating the Perfect Health Diet version of Paleo (includes white rice and some dairy) since he before he was two. He loves Star Wars, Legos, and anything Disney. He has his ups and downs, but for the most part he’s a pretty adventurous eater, and I thought it would be fun to share what we’ve done to encourage healthy eating behaviors.

First, let me give you a glimpse into how we eat at home. This is a typical meal setup at our house – one vegetable, one starch, and one meat – with equal portions of each. My wife and I also complement our meals with a small salad and/or fermented veggie side dishes, but this is basically what you can expect on our dinner table most nights. Breakfast for him is typically eggs, some meat, and berries or another fruit. Lunch is usually leftovers from dinner. He drinks a small cup of whole milk with breakfast and dinner, and drinks water at all other times. Every once in a while I’ll give him some kefir or sips of my homemade kombucha (which he calls “the sour juice”).

Before I get into specifics of what I do to encourage his eating habits, let’s look at some basics. There are a few suggestions that Matt and Stacy make in Eat Like a Dinosaur that ring especially true in our house, which I’d like to share:

Don’t force-feed. The standing rule in our house is that he has to take a bite of everything on his plate before being excused or having more of something he likes. This will help condition him to accept the fact that he can’t flat-out refuse to try foods, and hopefully will train his taste buds to be more accepting of new tastes.

They won’t starve. We rarely allow him to have snacks unless we’re having to stretch out his mealtimes because we’re out and about (the pictures above were from our recent trip to Disney World, where we supplemented some underwhelming meals with snacks). Since he sits down to eat three square meals a day, if he overeats at one meal (some mornings he will eat three eggs, several ounces of bacon, berries, and two bananas without blinking an eye), it’s natural for him to only pick at his lunch. If he doesn’t like a meal, we don’t make something else for him; he chooses to either eat what’s in front of him or wait for the next meal. This step has helped to keep his hunger and mood swings very manageable.

Be prepared to make concessions. As Oliver ages, it’s been hard for us to balance health eating with the idea that we’re depriving him of certain food memories that we had growing up – for better or for worse. We like to have treats now and then, so it’s only natural to allow Oliver to have treats as well. When my parents sent him some Pop Rocks a few months back, I couldn’t resist letting him have a taste, knowing full well that there isn’t one ingredient worth eating in the little package (see the video above).

Desserts that include chocolate or ice cream are rare, maybe once or twice a month, but we do let him have a piece of fruit after dinner when he asks for something (usually only once a week).

Okay, so now let’s talk about my rules for helping turn him into a little foodie.

1. He eats what we eat. I don’t dumb down his meals, with the exception of spiciness. I think this is the most important thing parents can do for their kids. In France and Japan, children are served full-spectrum meals at schools and at home, and we try to model our habits after that idea. Not only does it help develop a more sophisticated palate, I feel it makes him more apt to eat what’s on his plate since we’re all eating the same thing. I also encourage him to try my random fermented veggie creations, but I don’t force them on him, since they’re an acquired taste.

2. Moderate carb intake. Breast milk is naturally higher in carbs than in recorded Paleolithic-style diets (39% vs 13-20%), and a child’s brain uses a higher proportion of calorie consumption than in adults. Since brains are fed by glucose (carbs) as well as ketones, it makes sense that children have higher carbohydrate needs than adults. So we feed Oliver a moderate carb diet (30% of calories) using rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. I like to think that balancing Oliver’s macronutrients helps to keep him nourished and satisfied, which makes meal times less stressful for everyone. Bear in mind that ketogenic diets (very low carb) have been found to help with some behaviors in children, especially neurologic issues, so individual results will vary.

3. Use healthy umami preparations to encourage eating. I’m a big proponent of using high-reward (“tasty”) preparations of healthy foods that may otherwise be bland. For example, we almost always cook our rice in chicken stock to increase its tastiness, and we sprinkle on furikake (Urashima makes a natural version that contains only seaweed, shaved bonito, and sesame seeds) to make it even tastier. I think furikake is an important addition to Oliver’s meals because it’s a very strong and “fishy” taste, which he grew to love, and it probably makes him more likely to try new seafoods in the future. Mushrooms and fish sauce are also great sources of umami.

So really, that’s about it. Oliver eats what we eat, with an emphasis on making bland foods tasty, and I use a hint of science when figuring out his macronutrient ratios. The rest is just tenacity and consistency.

13 thoughts on “Turning Your Kids into Real-Food Foodies

  1. Oliver is one lucky little guy to have parents who have found their way so early on. I have three children (16, 12, and 10) and I can’t say that they started life in such an auspicious way. They have many bad habits from their childhood that I’d love to say that I’m breaking, but you can only do so much when they’re out of the house. As anyone with teenagers knows, you pick your battles. They eat well at home, but out in the world, it’s a different story. I have had luck with many of your recipes in enticing them to try new things and for now, I’m keeping on that path. We’ll see if it sticks.

    Anyhow, a congratulations is in order for the two of you for starting off Oliver right. Keep up the great work :)


    1. Thanks Chris! He has his bad days, but overall we’ve been really happy with Oliver’s eating habits. The hard thing is figuring out if he’s just a plan good eater, or if it’s our approach! I also agree, having some top-notch healthy meals (very happy you chose mine!) under your belt is a great gateway drug to a healthier lifestyle.


  2. I really love this post. We have two girls (4,5) and we are trying to introduce them to healthier habits after we have notice how bad gluten has been affecting one of the girls and my husband. They are not celiac but the after math of a gluten/sugary meal is really uncomfortable for them. I guess lucky for us who had started researching more on that topic :)
    Because we had our children in America we also started with children’s dinner versus adult’s dinner. Traveling to visit our families in Ireland and Brazil we see more often that is a silly habit. Due to my husband’s job we are always in touch with people from several different countries who can’t understand why parents serve different food for the children and when the children will change that habit.
    I must say, when you start with the PB lunch option it can be hard to change. But not impossible. Just cook an extra portion for dinner. It has been helping us a lot.
    Keep up the good work. I love all your posts!


    1. Hey Adri, great points – most of the rest of the world can’t fathom the idea of separate lunches for kids. It’s really apparent in our menus vs foreign menus – the kid’s menus here in America are just chock-full of bland, tan foods; overseas they’re usually just smaller portions of adults’ meals.


  3. I don’t have kids so can’t comment of effectiveness, but I love your sound approach. I have begun to realise lately that sometimes you need to coax the good foods in with more flavourful foods. Oh and I love sushi…


    1. Thanks! It took us a while to figure out what trends were working with his behavior, but I’m happy we found his sweet spot, and hopefully it’ll work with others. I totally agree, nutrient-dense foods should be flavor-packed to encourage you to eat more of them! :)


  4. This is fantastic! I’ve been working on getting my kids switched over and it’s going well with my oldest, but I still get some resistance from my youngest, so I’m glad to get your take on how to do it. You are doing a wonderful thing in getting your son on the right track from the get-go–think of how many health problems he’ll be able to avoid as he grows up, that’s responsible parenting!


  5. My husband and I feed our daughters in a similar way (with full fat dairy, white rice and potatoes) although I do make them a separate lunch still because there’s not enough leftovers. I really like your approach with your son. Sounds like he’s well on his way to becoming a real foodie!


  6. This post rings so true for our household as well, My two year old has been eating whatever we eat since he started solids. I have never understood the concept of making a separate meal. I also don’t think that kids need to be raised on mac and cheese or chicken nuggets because “that is all they will eat.” I know there are some exceptions with some special needs, but I’m a firm believer in one meal for everybody. Good for you for “going against the grain” See what I did there… Keep up the good work!


  7. Nice to see another family doing what we do. My daughter though does eat tons of fruit which I sometimes feel conflicted about. I’m also trying to decide if I should give her nursery school a pack of grain free matza crackers for her to eat when the other kids eat crackers because she is starting to ask for them. What do you think?


    1. Hey Kristen, we have the same problem with our son, who started pre-school last year. We give his teacher small baggies of somewhat-healthy snacks – veggie chips fried in coconut oil, etc – for him to eat during snack time so that he doesn’t feel completely left out. I would think that as part of a balanced diet, matza crackers should be okay. As far as fruit goes, during a parenting panel at PaleoFX last week, all panel members agreed that fruit is still a healthy alternative to most other foods out there, so it made me feel a little better when Oliver downs two bananas at once :)


      1. Cool. Can you tell me at what age your son stopped eating snacks. Willa eats an AM and PM snack on most days unless she’s uber distracted. But I don’t always think she’s hungry. I wonder if it is not more about habit or to socialize with others. Also, I’m amazed at the size of snacks other kids eat, like a small meal. We usually give a small amount of cheese/nuts or fruit/nuts. Thoughts?


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