Make Healthy Meals Happy Ones

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How can we make healthy meals happy ones? Win your kids to healthy foods through their heads as well as their hearts.

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Make Healthy Meals Happy Ones | Life as Mom

We’ve all had it happen to us. We prepare delicious, healthy meals, full of nourishing ingredients and seasoned with “Mom love”. One child decides he doesn’t like what you’re serving. He doesn’t like it that you require him to finish nine bites. Total.

He doesn’t like it that his sister pleads with him not to gag on it.

None of us like it when he decides he just can’t eat fried rice with a piece of spinach in it. And gags on it.

Yes, that really happened. Once upon a time.

While I did not pull a Mommy Dearest, I was admittedly not at my best in that moment. Before you pull out your Child Development 101 on me and tell me that I can’t win the food wars, let me just say: Don’t.

I think there are extremes in every case. There are parents who let their kids eat chicken nuggets at every meal and there are parents who are food tyrants. I fall somewhere in between. We had an off night and that is going to happen to all of us. We had a big talk and cuddle about it ten minutes later and all was well.

But, it still taught me a lot.

Healthy meals are no good if they aren’t (mostly) happy ones.

Make Healthy Meals Happy Ones | Life as Mom

I’m also thankful that this is the same kid who has come to the conclusion that he doesn’t really like junk food as much as he once did. [Fist pump!]

He got a bit weepy about it when he said,

I just have such good memories of those foods. I’m going to miss them.

This is exactly what food manufacturers build on: our experiences. There is a reason that boxed cheese and cracker meals look so cool. There is a reason that yogurt is dyed a nuclear color. There is a reason that certain fast food meals come in brightly colored boxes with junky toys the kid couldn’t care less about two hours later.

Junk foods are fun.

Michael Moss explores this marketing strategy in detail in his book, Salt, Sugar, Fat. I finally broke down and bought a digital copy of it. When you’ve checked out a book four times from the library and are still digesting it, when the kids are messing with your Kindle bookmarks because they are reading it, too, when your husband is asking questions and taking credit for your reading since he heard it first on Michael Medved, it’s time to just add the darn thing to your library!

It’s a fascinating read. It won’t freak you out. It’s not written to be gross or turn you off all food for the rest of your life. It’s just really good research about why you buy what you buy even if you don’t know why you do it.

And one of those reasons is because it makes you happy.

We buy junk food or fast food or foods that we know we could do better ourselves in part because we have fond memories or associations with them. My childhood memories are linked to food: carnitas soft tacos at Olvera Street; Dodger Dogs, peanuts, and a chocolate malt at Dodger Stadium; a Butter Pecan Ice Cream cone from Thrifty’s. I would eat each one of those items in a heart beat because they evoke a happy time in my life, though they might clog my arteries.

Some of us are more apt to associate food with special times. Throughout our sugar fast, I found myself wanting to reward my kids for their good attitudes. Many times, my first inclination is to buy them “a treat” at the grocery store. Fun and happy times are linked to food, particularly junky food.

(Yes, I know. I have parenting/food issues to work through.)

Make Healthy Meals Happy Ones | Life as Mom

That’s kinda what I’m saying actually. This is something to work through together with our kids. If we’re to equip them to eat better diets and enjoy healthy meals, we need to appeal to their hearts as well as their heads.

Here’s how I’m attempting some reforms:

1. Offering freedom of choice

While I think it’s important not to wimp out and let kids eat “whatever,” I think choices are important. The aforementioned FishBoy and I have since had discussions about how he can try new foods and not gag; how he can have some choices and control, but also not wimp out himself on foods that are new to him.

It’s an ongoing process of learning together.

2. Including kids in the process

My kids have always loved helping in the kitchen. From making homemade tortillas with Papa or helping me make pizzas and pancakes, cooking has always been a family affair. Now that we’re incorporating healthier options, I hope that we’re increasing the kids’ repertoire of preparing healthier foods for themselves.

In any event, I hope that they know how to cook when they leave home.

3. Growing independence

Now that they’re getting bigger, the kids are able to make more things on their own without my help. FishChick9 started using the bread machine when she was 7 and this past summer was seriously considered for casting in Kids Baking Championship. FishBoy19 was using the juicer on his own three years ago and continues to cook many of his meals himself and pack a lunch for college days. The others are growing in their independence and ability to prepare food for themselves.

If I stock healthy options, they will make healthy choices, because eventually that’s all there will be in the house! And they will make healthy meals on their own.

Make Healthy Meals Happy Ones | Life as Mom

4. Making healthy treats

Our sugar fast was so eye-opening. While we’ve gone back to more or less “normal” eating, we’ve found that we can do without sugar a lot more than we thought we could. I’ve found brands of cereal or bread with no added sugar as well as figured out a regular menu that really works for us. For the long haul.

I’ve also found ways to make healthy “treats” so we can enjoy something sweet once in awhile. While we probably can’t sustain the no-sugar added thing forever, I think has changed some of our regular habits.

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4. Adding a fun factor to food

My big boys held a breakfast cookout with the neighbor kids. Since they are history buffs, they cooked biscuits and grilled bacon and made all kinds of weird 19th century food together.

The kids have also enjoyed our occasional games of Chopped for Kids. The 12 and under crowd looks forward to this activity and gets super creative with it. Since I choose what ingredients they have to work with, I can sorta control things, but they get the freedom of choice, as long as they will eat what they prepare.

Those are kinda big things, but something as small as pulling out the sword toothpicks brightens up a simple lunch. You would have thought I had given them the world!

I am still learning how this healthy eating thing works for myself. For the record, I was usually the last kid at the table in our home growing up. I just didn’t want to eat what was in front of me. My regular menu in high school was a Snickers bar, Coke, and two Big Macs. For all intents and purposes, I was the junk food junkie. My kids know this about me. They also know that I want to change.

For some reason, I’ve been able to change some of my ways. I’m hoping that my kids will love and embrace the new ways as well. Sure, I’m making mistakes, but there we’re seeing some good things along the way.

May all your healthy meals be happy ones!

Make Healthy Meals Happy Ones | Life as Mom

Make Junk Food Yourself - Want to improve your family’s diet? Cut out commercial junk food and make it yourself -- at home, for cheaper, and less frequently.This post is part of a larger series on how to improve your family’s diet. 

Up next: how to eat better on a budget.

Originally published March 25, 2014. Updated September 17, 2016.

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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  1. Tiffany R says


    Great post! I think we have all had those nights where we want to give our children the best nutrition we can but they just won’t cooperate! I am trying to realize that even small wins are still wins so that when my 9 year old eats 1/2 a banana and doesn’t gag, it’s a victory. Good job, mama!

  2. Susan says

    Thanks for this. My almost 4 year-old has alwaysdemonstrated her need for control through food. We have finally gotten her past the 5 things she would eat and it has been a long process. And like everything else, people feel the need to tell you what to do. But the truth is that every kid is different. It has made me realize the need to have better options in the house to begin with so what little that does go in her stomach is of better quality.

    • Laura Cross says

      I was wondering if you could share some about how you got your child to eat more things. This sounds a lot like my situation with my almost 4 year old and can use all the advice I can get from someone who has been there.

      • Susan says

        It seems like we are both in good company, Laura! I wish I had some magic answer but a lot depends on the child. I think we tried virtually everything that I have heard about. I think they all helped a little but nothing really solved the problem (kind of like aids to help morning sickness!).

  3. Kara says

    I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only one with a kid that gags/throws-up! I also have a chipmunk. This kid will chew food and keep it in his cheek for onwards of 30 minutes, and he’s only 2! When the oldest was a year old and I was crying because of his eating, my husband and I decided no more. I can’t try myself crazy over what they wouldn’t eat. We feed them balanced meals with minimum bite requirements. A couple of times a week, we do make them food that they love. Our persistence is paying off, one loves cauliflower and another loves broccoli. We savor the little victories and I don’t cry anymore when someone’s not eating 🙂 Thanks for all you do, love all your sites!

  4. Great article and gives me some things to think about! My youngest is now a commuting college student of 23, but even so, this gives me ways to think of how I might make him more interested in shifting to a Less-Sugar mode as I’m currently trying to do.

  5. Leslie says

    So glad to hear others have had their kids puke at dinner! My son used to do that…he’s now 16 so thankfully he’s grown out of it. But he still won’t eat any vegetables (except salad) unless he can’t see them. Thus the occasional V-8 fruit juice concoction, and teen vitamins. I was picky as a kid, too and changed my ways in college, so I have hope for him!

  6. Angela B. says

    I’m so glad to hear someone else has had this problem….

  7. Diana says

    Ha! *I* used to be the kid who would gag or puke at dinner! I think I really do have legitimate issues with texture and taste of some things (gristle in meat being the biggest culprit). I thought I had grown out of it until it came back full force during pregnancy with things like dark green veggies, beans, and other various things. I learned not to force myself to eat them–it wasn’t worth losing the whole dinner over!–and also to prepare the things I knew I could safely eat so I didn’t have to resort to peanut butter again.

    Anyway, all that to say I can sympathize with your son, but my mom made me eat stuff anyway and I (and she!) survived and generally don’t have that problem any more 🙂

  8. cherie says

    Oh my goodness.

    It is so hard to be a Mom – wonderful and rewarding and lovely but sticky and messy and fraught with failure too.

    How much harder when you go public with the truth? Gazillions harder.

    Hugs for the rough night and kudos for how you’re working to better the whole situation – that IS parenting done right.

  9. MH says

    I think you could expand on your list – some of your photos show ideas you didn’t include – presentation matters. We use fancy (inherited) parfait dishes to serve berries and cream. You show the alphabet pasta and the colorful fruit skewers and the fun picks in the sandwiches. Kids love the packaging of Happy Meals and Lunchables. Sometimes I don’t make enough effort to present our healthy homemade meals so nicely.
    As for freedom of choice – I often try to serve multiple veggies – they don’t have to eat all of them, just some of them. And in the grocery store I let my 8 year olds pick out fruits in the produce section – even if it’s not in season and it’s expensive. That’s their treat.

  10. Janet says

    We have been very lucky or unlucky on the food front depending on how you look at it. Our kids will eat a wide variety of foods including fruits and veggies. We have never had any problems with gagging or vomiting. However, both are overweight for their age and height. Their doctors keep telling us they are too young for a diet, we should not eliminate treats entirely, and that they need to learn to make good food choices and self limit portions. As a mother it is tough telling your child that a second glass of milk or a second banana is too much especially when there are other parents around urging their children to eat the same food telling them “it’s good for you.”

  11. I have never understood the try me bite. My oldest is a puker (if you force her to eat it she WILL puke – all over herlself the plate and the table). And my youngest just won’t. I would have to do like you would do giving a pill to a dog to MAKE my kids eat it. When you have kids like this it’s tough. My daughter has figured out what she loves (green beans!) and all other veggies are for the birds. Casseroles – are you kidding???

  12. Christine says

    I have a different take on this because my oldest has Asperger’s syndrome, which often makes kids very, very rigid about food. We have compromised on his “safe” foods – blueberries, pasta, apples, homemade granola (gluten free – he also has celiac), etc. and although I cook every day and constantly introduce all the kids to new foods, I never force anyone to take a bite of anything. He used to vomit if someone tried to make him eat something. What really stuck with me, though, is a therapist at Children’s Hospital in our city telling me that forcing a child to eat what you eat – if he or she simply can’t do it because of sensory issues or anxiety or whatever is going on – is a really good way to create eating disorders. That scared me, because I have seen family members suffer with serious food issues. I love food and cooking and wish that food could be a joy to him as it is to me, but I just have to let go of that a bit. Also, I don’t remember being a very adventurous eater as a child, but eventually I loosened up and now eat everything but sushi! So some kids really do outgrow it.

    • Vanessa says

      I agree with you.I have been a mom for 22 years and never have made my children puke by making them eat something they didn’t want to eat.I have always had digestive issues.and go to a stomach doctor twice a year.If my mom had made me eat something I didn’t want to eat while a child I would have been at the doctor that same day.I think there is better ways to handle picky eating.

  13. Michele says

    We also have a child with Asperger’s who gagged and threw up when attempting to eat a variety of foods. Obviously every child is different, but I thought I would share what worked for us. A speech path suggested that we approach this sensory problem methodically. We began with baby food vegetables, giving him a tiny amount on a regular spoon. When this became comfortable, we moved to trying a taste of it on spoon with a tiny bit of graham cracker crumb on top, then a few sprinkles. After he was able to eat these, we moved to trying the food on a baby spoon with texture (designed for teething). We just kept slowly upping the texture quotient over time. We did this over the course of a summer, and not while he was eating meals. It was just a separate exercise we did several times each day. Eventually we worked our way to tiny pieces of the food, and then to regular-size bites. He was not remotely a baby when we did this, but it was very effective. He is now headed for college with very few eating issues (we haven’t quite managed to conquer try stringy, melty cheese).

    • What a great success story! Thank you for sharing. I know that will be an encouragement to others as well as myself.

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