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Teaching Children to Appreciate Food

If your child scrunches her nose and whines at what is served for dinner each night, there’s no need to switch the menu to chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. She may be a picky eater, but with your help, she can learn to appreciate a variety of foods, including healthy fruits and vegetables.

“Children can have lots of behaviors that interfere with good nutrition, such as aversions to tastes and textures, as well as availability for healthy foods,” says Sharon Palmer, Duarte, California-based dietitian and author of “The Plant-Powered Diet.”

Use of creative thinking and interactive activities can bring your child around, and she might soon be begging you for healthy, gourmet meals that will satisfy her taste buds and her curiosity about different foods.

Revolutionize the Norm

Special foods, such as snacks, treats and fast food, easily become the norm in many homes, and children often display strong behaviors in refusing healthful foods in lieu of these poor nutrient choices, says Palmer. “It’s important to make healthful, nutrient-rich foods the norm so that children don’t come to expect low-nutrient foods as a regular alternative,” she says.

Clean out the cupboards and toss out the junk food to help them resist the temptation. Get rid of pop tarts, cookies and chips and have whole-grain snacks, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and dairy products readily on hand to revolutionize the norm in a healthy way.

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Shop Together

To get your picky eater to appreciate food, it may help to show him its value. Get your kids in on the selection process when shopping and exploring healthy options. “One of the best things you can do is to take your child to the farmer’s market, where only these foods are available,” says Palmer. “They won’t be swayed by the colorful boxes of packaged, highly processed foods at a farmer’s market.”

While browsing the aisles of colorful fruits and vegetables, teach your child about the varieties and types of foods grown by the farmers. Take learning a step further and let your child taste samples and talk to the farmers about how foods are grown.

Food appreciation lessons can continue at home, too. Starting a vegetable garden teaches your child the value of food and also the responsibility of growing something for your family’s dinners. “Children can realize just how special and miraculous healthy foods are,” says Palmer.

Cook as a Family

Try a hands-on approach to help your child appreciate food. Encourage your kids to cook in the kitchen at an early age to let them experiment with food preparation, with your supervision, of course. “They can stir bowls, lick the spoon and even start to measure ingredients out,” says Palmer. “Let them play with dried beans and carrots while you're cooking and get some play kitchen items, such as mini aprons, spoons, bowls, so they can play chef.”

The more involved your child is with the process of preparing food, the more likely he will be to begin to appreciate food as a whole. “It will also help them later on in life when they need to start cooking on their own,” says Palmer.

RELATED: 10 Foods That Make Great Purées

Decorate the Menu

Eating shouldn’t be a chore for your child. In fact, with some creative, edible creations, eating may be the most fun activity of the day for her. Try fun techniques to make healthy food appetizing and fun, suggests Palmer. Make faces with a cross-section slice of an apple or pear, spread with nut butter and use nuts, raisins, coconut and carrot pieces to decorate a face. Let your kids make a snowy mountain with a scoop of cottage cheese while using broccoli flowers for trees.

Eat in Groups

While eating green beans and carrots solo might not appeal to your child, when he is eating in a group, you might be surprised at his appreciation of these foods. “In day care centers, kids often try foods that their mothers swear they will not eat, “ says Shari Portnoy, registered dietician with the Day Care Council of New York. “When peers around or doing something, they may do it, too, without even realizing."

When parents and siblings eat together, Portnoy recommends not making a big deal about eating different foods because the child often tries it without encouragement. “Some children are not interested in certain foods and may never like them, but with good role models that don’t force them but practice good habits, the child is more likely to follow,” she says.

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