Ideas for simple, healthy food swaps you can make for your kids.
Introducing new foods to your picky eater is tough, let alone introducing healthy options. There’s a reason why your kids will always gravitate towards foods high in sugar and fat – our bodies are designed to crave those foods. And, as parents, it can be easy to default to those types of food if to avoid a battle over eating.
However, one of the biggest jobs we have as parents is making healthy food choices for our children so that they can learn to do the same as they grow older.
If you’re dealing with a picky eater trying to introduce healthy alternatives can seem unattainable. But by taking it slow, it is possible to change your kids (and family’s) food choices.
How to introduce healthy food swaps to picky eaters.
Round up the usual suspects
Take a good look at what your kids love right now. Is there one (or four) items which you always cringe when you give them but keep doing it because A – they eat it without a battle and B – well, see A.
In our house, it’s cookies like animal crackers or Areoroots which tend to worm their way into our snack time routine. I try only to offer veggies, fruit, and cheese at snack time (occasionally with crackers) but cookies are such quick and mess-free option they do appear from time to time. However, I have to watch that they don’t feature on our regular snack rotation as it’s sometimes a slippery slope.
Take a good look at your dinner time standards well. Are the typical “kids foods” being featured on all too frequent rotation? Start looking at healthy swaps for those and keep the packaged ones for when you’re in a real time crunch. Consider panko chicken tenders for chicken nuggets and roasted baby potatoes for french fries.
Take Baby Steps
Maybe your child loves their goldfish crackers, and it’s something you can’t wait to stop giving them. Instead of jumping straight from crackers to veggies consider a soft transition. If they’re old enough, consider plain popcorn (not the microwave bagged kind) with a little salt. Or, if they like sweets maybe some apple chips. I also make a trail mix for my kids with cashews, dried cranberries and raisins, and a few cheerios.
A word of caution, swapping a non-organic snack to an organic snack product may feel like a healthier option but look at each item before making the call. I highly encourage you to search for things which are less processed rather than merely organic. Organic bunny cheddar crackers may be organic, but they still contain a long list of ingredients. Consider plain rice crackers with cheese as a less processed alternative.
Start with snack time
Start making your food swaps during snack time? Why you may ask. Well, snack time is often a low-pressure meal when compared to breakfast or dinner. If they don’t like the new offering, you don’t have the pressure of feeling like they’re going to face the day hungry or will wake up at night to ask you for a snack.
Snack time often tends to be the time we reach for prepackaged snack foods. Therefore, it’s the perfect place to start making healthy swaps.
Have a safe food at mealtimes
While it’s tempting to do a complete sweep of your family’s meals make sure you keep a preferred food (one that is accepted at least 50% of the time) at each meal.
If you’re following the Division of Responsibility method of eating, then you’re also trying to provide family meals at breakfast, lunch (when eating together) and dinner. As recommended always make sure that there is a preferred food item available at those times.
For snacks, I would suggest starting by offering your healthy food swap as well as two fruits or vegetables you know they like.
Don’t hide the change
Now is not the time to start hiding broccoli in the brownies. Not only are you trying to provide your child with healthier food options but you’re trying to teach them about making healthy food choices themselves.
Be upfront about the new foods rather than trying to sneak it in.
Get your kids involved
My kids are always more likely to try something new if they’re involved in selecting or preparing the food before it hits their plate.
There are some simple ways of doing this.
Take them to the grocery store with you (once in a while) and let them pick a new fruit for snack time
Get them involved in the preparation. My kids love washing fruits and veggies at the sink and will often start snacking straight from the colander. My preschooler’s job is also to peel the carrots, and she takes great pride in eating her freshly peeled carrot sticks. When we make our panko chicken tenders or fish sticks my daughter (aged 4). is right in there dipping and breaking the chicken or fish. And my son (aged 21 months) whisks his eggs for scrambled eggs, helps me stir them in the pan and adds in the grated cheese.
If you’re trying to eliminate juice then consider smoothies. Get your kids involved in choosing the type of smoothie and adding the ingredients. Both my kids love watching the blender at work and are always excited to taste the final results.
If you’re preparing plain popcorn, then get your child to shake the bag to distribute the salt. Depending on your child’s age, ability and enthusiasm you may want to transfer the popcorn to a plastic container with a lid for the shaking part.
Never pressure your child to eat the new item. If they won’t touch it keep your cool and shrug it off. However, no pressure does not mean there aren’t rules in place. While my children are not required to eat any item, they are expected to be polite about the food placed in front of them. In my house, that means no yucks or ewwws. A polite no thank you is all that I expect.
I will also add that if my daughter refuses a food without trying it first, I make a mental note to explain the food better the next time it appears at the table if I forgot to the first time. The next time I offer that particular food I will go through with her what the item is and how it was prepared. And, I will also reference another food (one that she does like) when explaining its taste.
Keep trying and don’t give up
It’s possible that your kids will not accept your healthy swaps the first, or fifth time, they appear. Keep trying! Consider switching up the preparation methods or the meals they appear at. But, please keep offering the new food. You never know when the first bite will happen.
Some simple, healthy food swaps
- A high protein, low sugar cereal swapped in for the usual sugar-laden one. Start by mixing the two then stop buying the old one.
- Instant pot or slow cooker oatmeal instead of packaged instant oatmeal. Far healthier and a lot less sugar.
- Tortilla chips or low sodium pretzels instead of regular chips
- Homemade breaded chicken for prepacked chicken nuggets
- High protein bars or balls for the typical kid’s granola bars
- Homemade trail mix with fruit, nuts, and cheerios instead of goldfish crackers
- Whole wheat or multigrain instead of white. Think about all the carbs you eat and look for alternatives with higher fibre content. Bread, tortillas, crackers, rice, pasta, etc.
- Plain Yogurt for flavoured yogurt. Take a good look at the yogurt you’re currently buying for your kids. How much sugar does it contain? Now take a look at the plain yogurt at the grocery store and compare the difference (and the cost). I always buy big tubs of plain yogurt and then let my kids add their flavours. Some of our go-tos are honey, maple syrup, and jam. While it means that they are still getting some added sugar, I’m more in control of how much is added in, and it’s a far less processed option (not to mention cheaper).
- Herbal Iced tea for juice and soda. Truthfully I’ve trained my children to expect only water from a young age so the amount of juice they drink in minimal and infrequent. However, if your children are hooked on juice and soda try a home-brewed herbal iced tea as an alternative. Start by mixing it with their usual juice (with sparkling water is they need the fizz) and then reduce the amount of juice gradually. I also use herbal tea to make popsicles in the summer.
What not to swap
- Low fat for full fat. Your kids need sources of good fats in their diet so don’t start buying the low-fat versions for them. Some examples where it’s okay to keep the fat are milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter and oil. Look carefully at the labels for processed food when considering a low-fat option. Has extra sugar been added to the low-fat version? Consider using less of the full-fat option (like mayo) or find a less processed alternative.
- Olive oil for any other oil. While I love olive oil, you need to consider how you’re using the oil before you make the swap. Olive oil has a lower smoking point than say, canola oil (or my go-to of avocado oil) and isn’t a good choice for cooking with. However, when I’m making hummus I’ll always choose olive oil over any other options.