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Inspire Curiosity and Independence in Girls with Nature

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Five Great Family Nutrition Habits

by Melinda Johnson

Melinda Johnson

Melinda Johnson is a dietitian and nutrition expert. Read more »

Sorry, Melinda Johnson is no longer taking questions.

Being healthy (or being unhealthy) is really just a result of the sum of our habits; the more healthy habits we have, the more likely we will benefit by having good health.  The good news about habits is that they can be developed or changed, with a little focus and a plan.

Challenge your family to develop at least one healthy habit.  It's best to work on one habit that the family agrees on.  Remember that it takes at least three weeks of doing something for it to become a "habit."  Keeping the focus on building one habit at a time allows you to have a plan without becoming overwhelmed.

Here are five great nutrition-related habits you may want to work on as a family:

Cook at home more.  When we make our own food, rather than relying on a restaurant or take out, we tend to eat healthier.  The food we make at home tends to be lower in fat, have less sodium, and tends to offer more in the way of fruits and vegetables.  If you are a take-out kind of family, begin by cutting down slowly.  For example, if you tend to grab fast food four nights a week, start by cutting down to two or three nights a week.  You may need to work on building up your "go-to" recipes; a rotation of about 5 to 10 recipes that you can "go-to" on busy nights.  These are the dishes that you know your family likes and that are easy to make.  Challenge yourself to find healthy recipes that you can put into your core rotation.

Make family meals a family priority.  The research behind family meals is strong and convincing: kids that eat most meals with their family tend to eat better and also tend to have higher self-esteem and do better in school!  Even if you just picked up a take-out meal, make it a family meal by turning off the TV and sitting down to eat together.

Add a fruit or vegetable to every meal.  The powerhouses of the nutrition world are fruits and vegetables, hands down.  Make it a habit to always have at least one fruit or vegetable at each meal; canned and frozen can help fill in the gaps between grocery store visits.  Once you have covered the meals for awhile, move on to building the habit of snacking on fruits or vegetables at least once a day.  Involve your kids by allowing them to shop with you in the produce aisle or by helping them to start their own vegetable garden.

Bring kids into the kitchen.  Teaching kids how to feel comfortable in the kitchen and giving them basic cooking skills is one of the most important ways to prepare them for living on their own.  Invite your kids into the kitchen while you're preparing food by offering them small jobs or simply allowing them to watch.  Although this may be slightly more time consuming (and messier), the payoff is worth it.  In addition to learning about cooking and food, the kitchen offers lessons in science, math, and even reading!

Go for a walk together.  In some cultures, taking a walk after a meal is something everyone does.  Taking an evening walk as a family is a great habit to build for several reasons:  it helps burn off extra calories, helps teach kids how to be active, and it gives an uninterrupted chance to talk.  Other options may be to dance together, go for a bike ride, or to go for a family swim.

I'd love to hear from you.  Do you have some nutrition tips or habits that work for your family?  And, what "go-to" recipes have made your life easier?

Sorry, Melinda Johnson is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Jacqueline writes...

My youngest will be two years old next month and he is the pickiest eater of all my children. It started when I introduced him to solid foods as a baby. Out of the different flavors he would only eat two kinds. He has never eaten meat, I have tried hiding it in food but he always seems to find it. He will pick it out or he just won't eat his food. I never make a big deal out of it or force him to eat anything. The doctor says he is growing fine, so I'm not worried about that. I buy as much organic as I possibly can, to make sure what he is eating I know is healthier all around. He is really good about eating fruit, he has a pear or apple with breakfast every morning. I do try and get him to eat new foods, but it never works. He doesn't even like ice cream. If he does try something new and the feel of it is weird (to him) he will not eat it. I just want to help him be more adventurous when it comes to food.

Melinda? writes...

Hi, Jacqueline! It's very natural for your two year old to be picky - and that's great that you are not making a big deal out of it or forcing him to eat things he doesn't want to. The trick with feeding picky eaters is to make sure to serve a variety of foods in a structured way (meaning meals and snacks), and letting the child approach the various foods in his own time. Be sure to serve the same food to him as the rest of the family. As long as he is served a variety of food, he wil grow and develop just fine.

Make sure he is being allowed to get hungry between meal times. Many times, kids will "graze" or drink all day long, and this keeps their tummies full enough that they simply don't want to eat when they get to the dinner table.

For more information on feeding picky eaters, I recommend the book "How to Get Your Kid to Eat... But Not Too Much" by Ellyn Satter; you can also visit Ms. Satter's website at

Good luck!

nicole writes...

Hi Melinda. I really need help in the "go to" meal department. I work full-time and am terrible at planning meals for the kids. One night is usually pizza night, but there are still 4 more nights to deal with. :)

Would you mind sharing one of your favorite "go to" meals? Thanks.

Melinda? writes...

Hi, Nicole! Here's one of my favorite go-to meals, that my kids love:

Cook one pound of cut up meat (I usually use beef, but have used chicken); set aside and keep warm. Add a small amount of sesame oil (or other cooking oil) to the hot pan, add some garlic and green onions, then add a bag of shredded cabbage; cook down until it's pretty wilted, then set aside. To same pan, add 1 1/2 cups of water, then crumble in the noodles from two ramen noodle packages (same flavor as the meat you used). Add one of the seasoning packages and toss the other one. Once the noodles are soft, add back the meat and cabbage, then serve - YUM! Add some peanuts and soy sauce, if you like.

Finding your go-to recipes takes a little bit of planning - take an hour or so on the weekend, before you go to the grocery store, and try to plan out what you want to cook during the week. Then, keep a special file for the recipes that are a hit (or make notes in the cookbook). Remember, a recipe gets easier and faster each time you cook it, and pretty soon you won't even need to look at the recipe! To find recipes, I like browsing cooking magazines, like Cooking Light. I also like recipe websites like, where you can even search by ingredient.

Good luck and Happy Cooking!

Cindy writes...

What do you do with picky eaters. I do daycare and some of the kids are just really picky. I dont want to make 6 diff. meals everday for lunch but cant seem to find the things they all like.
Any suggestions.

Melinda? writes...

Hi, Cindy - as long as you are following the guidelines for menus for daycare, you are doing the right thing for those picky eaters.

Daycares are required to serve meals and snacks, and they are also given guidelines that dictate a variety of foods at each meal and snack. In Arizona, where I live, the guideline for lunch is that you have a grain, a meat or meat substitute, two different fruits and/or veggies, plus fluid milk. For a snack, you must represent two different food groups. This turns out to be a great way to feed kids, overall - it gives them the opportunity to try different foods, and if they don't like a particular meal, there is another eating opportunity in a couple of hours.

Some kids are big eaters, and some are not; your job as their caregiver is to provide them a variety of foods in a structured way (meaning meals and snacks). You do not have to become a short order cook to please all of them at every meal! In fact, this does them a disservice. Simply stick to your menu, serve a variety of foods, and allow them to choose what to eat at each meal of what you serve.

By the way, this is the plan that Head Start follows, and I hear over and over again from Head Start teachers how their picky eaters turn around to better eaters as the year progresses. (One other key component of the Head Start program is the practice of family meals - the teacher sits down with the kids at each meal.)

Good luck, and thank you for the important work you do working with kids!

Cari writes...

One thing that has helped my kids branch out and try new foods is to have our pediatrician ask them to do it. At my five-year-old's recent annual check-up, our doc talked to her about the importance of eating a variety of foods and asked if she would take two bites of any new foods she is served. She agreed. Now, we only need to remind her of what the doctor said before she'll try a new food. Something about hearing it from a third-party authority figure instead of me all the time seemed to have made a big difference!

Melinda? writes...

Great tip, Cari - the research backs up your observation, too. Kids are motivated to eat better when they learn about nutrition and how it relates to their growing body, especially when it comes from someone other than the parent! This is one reason I'm a huge advocate of nutrition education in the schools. Sounds like you've got a great doctor!

gabrielle writes...

Melinda, I'm having trouble with my 4 year old daughter. For dinner, she only wants shrimp or pizza! Sometimes, she'll eat chicken wings or bbq ribs, but again, these aren't things that I want to give her on a regular basis.

It's really tough at breakfast too. She loves pancakes (ones that we get from our local diner on the weekend), but doesn't want much else. She used to eat oatmeal, cereal, toast... I feel like my options are getting more and more limited. Help! :)

Melinda? writes...

Hi, Gabrielle! What you are describing is a very common problem with young children; to solve the problem, it's important to understand what is known as the Division of Responsibility in feeding young children (a term coined by Ellyn Satter, see As the parent, your job is to decide what is served and to provide structure by serving meals and snacks and limiting grazing in between. Your daughter's role is to decide what or how much to eat of the food that was served.

When we follow these roles, it is no longer the child's role to decide what is going to be served - they are too young and inexperienced with food to have this responsibility. When we allow them to have this responsibility, some will test the boundaries by making harder demands and getting even pickier - commonly called a "power struggle".

Here is what I want you to do: take back control of the menu. You decide what to serve at each meal, and make sure it is the same for the whole family. Make sure to serve a variety of food at each meal (three to four food groups represented at a meal, two at a snack). It is fine to serve her very favorite foods once in awhile, but the only way she will learn to like other food is if she has a chance to eat them.

It is completely fine and natural if she doesn't eat what you serve. She may only nibble at the corn, or take a couple bites of bread, for example. Do not get up and make her something else!! Kids' appetites can vary widely from meal to meal, and they eat accordingly - this is a good thing! Your secret weapon is that you know that she can have a snack later on.

She may be resistant to this at first, but just hold your ground. In the end, she will be relieved that she is no longer in control of the household menu.

Good luck!

Nakisha writes...

Hello! my daughter Sahara is 16months, when i say picky eater that's a understatment. i have to give her pedisure to make sure she get's her daily nutrients. i come from a family that loves to eat. we do eat healthy.please help me with some suggestions, though i think i heard them all from dr,mom,sister's and friends. she just don't like food that much....HELP MOTHER WITH PICKY CHILD

Melinda? writes...

Hi, Nakisha! One of the things that can be very common with toddlers (and very alarming to parents) is that they seem to survive on air! To parents, it can seem that the child barely eats anything, but in fact, if they are growing, they are eating enough. One thing you did not mention in your post is if your daughter is growing appropriately. Some children are naturally light eaters, but as long as her growth curve is not dropping off or spiking up, she is doing fine. This should be covered during her well-baby visits to her pediatrician.

If your doctor has ruled out any medical problems that may be contributing to an aversion to food, and if your daughter is growing appropriately, I would like you to discontinue the pediasure for now. The reason is this: it is filling her up so that she does not have the need or desire to try food. One of the most common underlying problems with picky eaters is that they drink or snack all day long - milk, juice, crackers, etc., and they don't actually get hungry because of this!

Assuming your daughter is growing normally, as assessed by her doctor, here is what I want you to do: stop the pediasure, and begin to serve meals and snacks with a variety of food (two food groups at a snack, and three or four at a meal); allow her to eat what she wants of what you serve, but do not be alarmed if she eats nothing at a particular meal or snack. When she is hungry, she will eat. It's OK if she only eats one of the food items you placed in front of her. Try to sit and eat with her, and try to make her food as similar to what the family is eating. Do not beg, bribe, or make a big deal about trying to get her to eat. Just do your job of providing the food, and she will end up eating the amount her body needs. Make sure she is allowed to get hungry between meals, which means not allowing grazing or drinking (except water) between meals.

For more information on feeding a picky eater, I strongly recommend one of Ellyn Satter's books, which you can find (along with a lot of information), on her website

Good luck!

gabrielle writes...

Thanks so much, Melinda. I had been going out of my way to serve her what she wanted (or what I thought she would eat), while still making something else for my 2 year old.

I'm ready to end the power struggle!

carol writes...

As a retired Home Ec teacher I applaud your advise on family meal time. In our
home, if the sun is not shining in at mealtime we light candles. This creates an ambiance condusive to pleasant conversation, and lingering to visit. Snuffing the candles also is a subtle way to let everyone know the meal is over

Melinda? writes...

Thanks for the post, Carol! Great idea with the candles - I bet your children have fond memories of family meal time!

William writes...

Melinda, I just learned that my 4 year old has an iron deficiency and needs to take supplements. Could you suggest some foods for him that are loaded with iron? Thanks.

Melinda? writes...

Hi, William! It is difficult to treat iron deficiency without using a supplement, so don't drop the supplement until the doctor tells you it's okay. However, you can prevent iron deficiency from happening by serving iron rich foods; iron is found in meats, like red meat, chicken, and turkey, but is also found in beans and is fortified in many grain products like breakfast cereals and frozen waffles. You'll also find a little iron in eggs, spinach, peanut butter, and raisins.

There is a trick to help your child absorb more iron from foods (except from meat - that iron is easily absorbed, already). The trick is adding a food high in vitamin C with the meal. So, a glass of orange juice with his breakfast cereal, sliced strawberries on his frozen waffles, pineapple chunks with his sandwich all work nicely. Other foods high in vitamin C include tomatoes, bell peppers, kiwi, and vitamin-C fortified apple juice.

Another trick is to cook things in a cast iron skillet, especially acidic foods like tomato sauce. The food will take on iron from the skillet, boosting it's iron content.

One of the reasons some kids become anemic is because of a drinking too much milk or juice. While these are great, nutritious foods, they have no iron - so, if your kiddo is a big milk or juice fan, try to cut down amounts to no more than two to three cups a day, and limit drinking it between meals so he can get hungry for other food.

Cathesia writes...

My 3 year old son is a very picky eater.
We had less trouble getting him to eat a variety of healthy foods when he was younger. Need tips!

Melinda? writes...

Hi, Cathesia - it is very normal for children to go through eating peaks and valleys; remember that it is simply your job to serve a variety of food in a structured way (meals and snacks), and it is his job to decide what to eat of what is served. The more you try to beg or bribe, the pickier he will likely become. As long as he is growing well (following the same percentile on the growth charts), he is eating just fine.

Try to make sure he has enough time to get hungry before meals - this may mean cutting down on grazing or drinking during the day. He is old enough to be eating what the family eats, so simply serve him the same food that you are eating (with modifications if necessary, such as serving him less spicy meat, for example), sit down and eat with him. The less of a big deal that you make out of it, the easier it will get in the long run.

For more information on feeding picky eaters, I recommend the work of Ellyn Satter (, or you can also visit me on my professional blog, Nutrition for Slackers.

Good luck!

Amy writes...

I try to cook at home most nights, but with two boys (6 and 8) and busy schedules, it's tough! Instead of 'go-to' recipes, what works for us is a few go-to foods that can be combined into quick meals.

My boys prefer chicken to other meats, so most weeks I grill a few pounds of boneless chicken breasts marinated in Italian salad dressing, and then freeze them individually. The chicken is a quick add to pasta, chef's salad, or in tortillas with cheese to make easy quesadillas.

Melinda? writes...

Great tip, Amy, thanks!

Audrey Mckenna writes...

Hey Melinda-
My two and a half year old is PICKEY!!!!! Things he enjoyed as an infant are pretty impossible to give to him now. Virtually no colors except for fruit. I was able to give him pureed carrots mixed in with his home made mac and cheese. I am a chef and vegetarian- I do try to give him meat that is an impossibility. Once in a while he will eat a chicken tender. For the most part everything he does eat is homemade which is good. I just wish he would eat more veggies. He at one time ate gazpacho and I fell out of my seat. He even asked for seconds. I have always tried to have dinnertime and because it is just he and I he doesn't always want to sit and eat. I just need to be reassured that he will grow out of this phase.
Thanks- Audrey

Jen writes...

I believe teaching kids to 'respect' food is very important. In our house all food stays in the kitchen. The 3 boys sit at the table and eat, which helps me keep track of how much they are eating, and keeps them from snacking too much. (Also helps keep the house cleaner.) After dinner walks are a great tradition we try to keep up with a few times each week.

Jennifer writes...

I think cooking at home all the time is the best way to keep your family together, because you can tech them that meal time is a moment to talk to share what you did during the day or simply share your experiences...

Missy writes...

I am a mother of two young boys ages 9 months and 34 months. I started them both out very young, as soon as they could eat real food, on veggies and fruit. What amazed me was how suprised people were that my kids eat fruit and veggies without complaint. I remember looking at the fruits one day and just chatting with another shopper and trying to figure out what couple items of fruit I was going to get for my older son, who at the time was only around 12 months. She asked what fruit I liked and I told her I was getting the fruit for my son and she was suprised. She said he eats fruit already? I said of course he loves fruit and veggies too. She said "WOW" that is so great, good for you. My gandkids won't eat them. I wish more parents were like you. I told her I started him out on them right away and he developed a taste for them.

Her response kind of suprised me though. I don't understand why people like her are so shocked when I tell them my kids love their fruits and veggies. Shouldn't most kids enjoy eating what is good for them? I guess though if you are not in the habit of eating them yourself you are less likely to feed them to your kids.

Well that shouldn't be the case and actually it isn't with us. I actually do not eat a lot of fruit and veggies myself, which I should, but I always make sure my kids do. My older son usually asks for apples and grapes every day for lunch which I gladly give him. He also likes bananas, strawberries,pears, blackberries, the list goes on. My younger son is following in his footsteps.

People are also immpressed that they both like green beans, carrots, potatoes, olives and other veggies too. I tell people that they are use to eating it and like them because they started very young eating these foods.

I wish more parents would start their kids out right and get them to eat fruits and veggies as soon as possible. Kids will suprise you and will eat then if they are introduced to them right away. If they go through a period when they are picky then just keep trying to reintroduce these foods back into their diet. Your kids will benefit from it and be much happier and healthier.

I don't think I should be praised or congratulated because my kids eat healthy. I am just doing what every parent should do and that is make sure my kids are happy healthy eaters. Trust me both you and your kids will benefit from it.

Wanda writes...

My three year old son is picky at what he eats and he's very active at play. Some parents are already labeling home as a terrible kid but he's anything but terrible.I'm trying to get him in school because he's so active until he's driving mommy nuts and I could use a break if it's only three hours for now.I need to know how do I deal with a child this active and what do I do about his pickiness when it comes to food?

nadia writes...

ok i am desperate my son is almost 3 he will only eat cereal nothing else ohhh and piza i have try evething people tell me to do and still nothing works, if we dont give him cereal he goes to bed and dosen't eat. we are a mix family i am latina and my husband is white so we mix foods all of the times and i make foods that my dougther eats but my son wont we even try to make him diferent foods so he can sid and eat with us and still dont work.he is healty or so the doctor says but it is very frustreting. we are at this point no longer buying cereal and he has not eated dinner for over a week now.

Norma writes...

I have found a book that keeps children's attention and helps them learn helthy eating habits. Here is the website

Sandra writes...

My 6 year old daughter eats only non spicy food, We in the family eat spicy food, but she will not even try to taste the less spicy stuff. The only thing she likes is plain rice and yogurt. Occasionaly she eats chicken which is cooked with a little salt and pepper. How can I change her habit gradually. I have tried introducing one spoon spicy food, along with her non spicy platter. but have being unsuccessful. She does not like to eat out, nor try new flavours. Pls help

hishama writes...

my daughter is 2 years old and her weight is only 9kg she never eats anything not even a fruit she drinks only milk pls help me im so worried about this

tam writes...

hi, I live in Viet Nam, I have 2 children ( boy and girl ),both of them do not like to eat more, I do not know the reason why, please give me some advices for thus. thank a lots.

jen writes...

personally we had great results with this fast weight loss program. The reason it worked so well, was because everyone follows a custom plan for your specific height/weight so you end up losing weight faster.

Johnson writes...

. Cook at home more.

. Make family meals a family priority.

. Bring kids into the kitchen.

. Bring kids into the kitchen.

. Go for a walk together.

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zara454 writes...

What do you do with picky eaters. I do daycare and some of the kids are just really picky. I dont want to make 6 diff. meals everday for lunch but cant seem to find the things they all like.
Any suggestions.
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my daughter is 2 years old and her weight is only 9kg she never eats anything not even a fruit she drinks only milk pls help me im so worried about this essay

Mace writes...

Great article, my wife and I cook almost every meal, we always eat at the dinner table, have healthy foods, and we don't FORCE our kids to eat everything.

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Your comment: "Challenge your family to develop at least one healthy habit. It's best to work on one habit that the family agrees on. Remember that it takes at least three weeks of doing something for it to become a "habit." Keeping the focus on building one habit at a time allows you to have a plan without becoming overwhelmed." is so right.
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I don't understand why people like her are so shocked when I tell them my kids love their fruits and veggies. Shouldn't most kids enjoy eating what is good for them.

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