If you have ever sat at a dinner table for thirty minutes, begging your child to eat just a single bite of a carrot, you are not alone.
Kids can be notoriously finicky around food, especially when it comes to nutritious choices such as fruits and vegetables. Sometimes even getting these foods onto their plates can be a Herculean task in itself, and that doesn’t even account for building a healthy relationship with health and nutrition over the long term.
We spoke to Krista Jenesma, a registered dietitian with Doherty Nutrition, about her thoughts on getting kids to love vegetables, preventing eating disorders, and encouraging a healthy and confident mindset around food over a lifetime.
It’s great to talk with you, Krista. To start, what is your specialty as a dietitian?
I am a pediatric dietitian, and I work with young people of all ages, with many different conditions. I see a lot of gastrointestinal difficulties, so children who are tube feeding or have several food allergies. I also work with teenagers that are potentially struggling, whether they are simply seeking to understand nutrition or are falling prey to misinformation around dieting and health. A lot of times, there’s a lot of bullying or pressure to be healthy in a strict and specific way, and there’s less conversation around self-worth and self-esteem.
The remainder of clients are families looking for help expanding their children’s palettes and diets. They are looking to get kids beyond their usual chicken nuggets and french fries!
We talk a lot about “healthy behaviors,” a term that encompasses both consuming nutritional food as well as developing healthy attitudes around it. What are your thoughts on stating that conversation?
In my work, I always start out with the idea that there is no “perfect” food. Kids should learn that there’s a time and place for everything. We also need to make sure that we support our bodies with the nutrition they need, as well as understand the reasoning behind those choices. So, a lot of times, I’m educating not only the children but also their parents about what happens to our bodies when we eat.
Kids are in a unique spot for education. Their brains are still growing and developing, and they often don’t consider the long-term effects of any certain behavior. My job is to make my work relevant to them today. And how do I make it relevant? By putting it in terms they understand. You want to be better at T-ball or to ace your exam? Great! Let’s make sure we nourish your body and your brain so that you can do that.
We say all the time “Eat your vegetables, eat your vegetables, eat your vegetables.” Do you think that framework is helpful, or do you feel like there are better ways that we can be approaching nutritional food intake?
If parents think back to when they were kids, there was a very different language around food. You had to finish your plate, and you had to eat your vegetables, and there was a lot of pressure at the dinner table. What we’ve learned since then is that kind of behavior really doesn’t end up benefiting kids in the short-term or the long-term, especially when it comes to their relationship with food.
Today, we instead encourage inviting kids to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to their food. The more we can get them involved, whether through cooking classes, grocery shopping or gardening, and growing their own food, the more normal foods like fruits and vegetables become.
Try taking them to the produce aisle and have them pick a fruit or vegetable that they want to eat. Let them help make dinner and then at the table, focus on language that promotes curiosity. Say things like, “Wow, this cauliflower looks really interesting. I wonder what it tastes like,” without putting the pressure on the child to try it. That way, they have freedom in their food choices.
You mentioned gardening as a great tool for exposing kids to more fruits and vegetables. At Gardenuity, we also talk a lot about the physical and mental health benefits of gardening for adults. Do those also apply to kids?
Yes, 100%. It means a lot for a child to understand where food comes from, both the growing process and the work that goes into making meals. They get to see why food straight from a garden is fresher than the factory-made boxed stuff on the grocery store shelf. Have them be as hands-on as possible. Empower them to realize that they can grow their own carrots or lettuce, that they can cook with and eat what they grow. Aside from the lessons about where food comes from, it’s also a great way to build empowerment around food.
I tell every client that I have that all we can do is our best. However, it can be tricky when we don’t know where all of our food is coming from. We can’t control if an ingredient isn’t listed on the packaging of something we buy, but we take that control back when we grow it ourselves.
That must be especially true for families of children that have allergies and gastrointestinal issues.
Yes, there’s an added layer to the benefits of gardening for that specific population. When I first
started working with tube-feeding patients, there was really only one blenderized food option on the market. Now, we have a bunch, which is amazing for parents, because the time and consideration it takes to make a blenderized formula could be a whole other topic of conversation.
However, sometimes parents want to be able to give their children some of the same foods as children who eat by mouth. When you garden, there is more flexibility in the options you are potentially able to provide because parents know exactly where that food comes from.
What are your thoughts on the recipes that try to “hide” vegetables? Do you feel like it’s important that children are introduced to vegetables as they are?
It depends! I explain to parents that there are three types of children. The first are those who will try new foods but may not like them right away. Those kids might need to try something several times before accepting it. I recommend choosing a veggie of the week, then try cooking it in several different ways. I just worked with a patient who chose cauliflower as their weekly veggie. One day, they are going to have it raw with guacamole or hummus. Another day, roasted with some melted cheese. Then they’ll try cauliflower rice mixed with regular rice. It typically takes a child ten tries to determine whether or not they like something, and introducing different variations of a specific fruit or vegetable is a great way to combat food fatigue.
The second tier are kids who have their “safety” foods, like mac and cheese or chicken nuggets, but they are potentially open to others. For those kids, try getting them involved in meal prep. Have them mix up the lettuce or pick the tomatoes from the garden. At the beginning, they may or may not eat it, but they will get more involved and, therefore, more comfortable with it.
And then there’s the third type of kid, who is not open to anything new. If you’re really struggling to get the vegetables in and you’re really concerned, I don’t think there’s a problem with hiding veggies in other foods. However, it’s important to recognize that’s just a Band-Aid on the issue. We really want to make sure that exposure factor is there so that they can continue to get comfortable with fruits and vegetables.
Aside from getting our kids excited about healthy food, how can we promote a healthy relationship with food?
There’s a huge emphasis on eating super healthy, which is important. But it’s also important to teach kids that food is just food. Everything we eat becomes energy for our body, and, in eating, we are just looking to make sure that we get all the vitamins and minerals, and nutrients we need in the day. But kids really need to hear that there is no food off-limits forever, that there are no bad foods.
Each year, we see an uptick in younger and younger kids developing eating disorders or showing signs of borderline behaviors. That’s not healthy either. The more we can avoid any sort of restriction, that we can teach our kids that every food has a time and a place, the better. And the more confidence we can build around food, their freedom to choose it and grow it and enjoy it, the better.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.