Raise a Good Eater

Help your kids crunch more fruits and veggies. An interview with Produce for Kids dietitian Estela Schnelle.


Sprout: From your perspective as a dietician, do preschoolers have special nutritional needs that parents need to be aware of? And if so, is there a list of "power foods" for young children?

Estela: Preschoolers grow at different rates and because of that, their eating patterns can very from day to day. That being said, providing a variety of foods is very important. Try to include as much color on your child's plate as possible. Blueberries, squash, pumpkin, kiwi, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, whole grains… all provide vital nutrients.

Sprout: We've all met picky eaters. Some of us must dine with them every night. What steps can parents take to reprogram picky palates?

Estela: My oldest daughter is starting to go through the picky eating stage. Foods she used to love (like broccoli) she refuses to eat.

The most important thing I try to do is be consistent. I provide her with three meals and two snacks. I always make sure that we are eating the same food. If we, as parents, aren't eating fruit and veggies, we can't expect our kids to. We need to eat the way we want our children to eat.

What I do is always have one thing on my daughter's plate that I know she loves. Pasta and rice are big favorites, so I always try to include one of those in each meal. Then I'll include veggies and a protein source. I encourage her to try the food, but never pressure her. After introducing the same foods over and over again, she eventually gives it a try. The key is to never give up.

Sprout: Many adults grew up with messages like: "If you want dessert, eat all your broccoli." What do you think are the most helpful messages we can share to help little ones make good choices?

Estela: When we are putting a meal together, I talk to my daughter about the different foods and what roles they play. I love the "half the plate is fruits and veggies" message. I tell her we need those to give us energy and make us strong. The more colorful the food, the better it is. We all know that kids love sweets. I try not to focus too much on dessert. If she really wants a sweet treat, I try to save it for a snack. The key is to provide options.

Sprout: Experts like you tell us that kids are more likely to eat the meal when they help prepare it. Our Sprout shows like Noodle & Doodle take this to heart, but we also recognize that cooking with young children isn't always easy. What tips do you have forsuccessfullyinvolving preschoolers in the kitchen?

Estela: We love Noodle & Doodle!

Here are some tips I use when it comes to kids & cooking:

  • Make sure all hair is pulled back
  • Always have your child wash hands before, during (if needed), and after cooking.
  • Keep all sharp objects out of reach
  • Teach safety ("The oven is hot")
  • Choose a time of day where you won't be rushed (mid-morning or early afternoon works well for us)
  • Keep kid-friendly utensils handy: wooden spoons, non-breakable bowls, measuring cups, cookie cutters, and a wire whisk

Here are some additional tasks I include my daughter in:

  • Set the table
  • Wash fruits and vegetables
  • Take foods out of the refrigerator or pantry
  • Set the timer and give updates on how much time is left
  • Measure ingredients
  • Stir ingredients in a bowl
  • Read the recipe
  • Spread or layer ingredients in a pan before baking
  • Cut out items using a plastic cookie cutter
  • Help clean up and wash dishes

I have also started including my daughter in making her school lunch the night before. I find the more she is involved in preparing food, the more likely she is to eat it. This has worked wonders when it comes to introducing new foods to her.

Sprout: We like your family mantra: "Eat when you are hungry, and eat real food." Tell us how this plays out in your household.

Estela: We are always talking about belly hunger in our house. We like to call it tummy talk. Whenever my husband or I are hungry we say how our tummy feels (grumble noises, hunger pangs, low energy). When we eat together, my daughter often asks why I stopped eating. My answer is "my belly is full." We also talk about how a food feels in our tummy. If she's hungry and likes what she's eating, she says her tummy is very happy.

Sprout: At Sprout, we embrace everything playful. How do you and your kids play with food?

Estela: Santa gave our oldest daughter a play kitchen this past Christmas. This has opened up a whole knew world for her. She loves baking and washing dishes. We also baked Christmas ornaments. She loved playing with the dough, watching it bake and painting the ornaments. Dying Easter eggs was a big hit, as well.

Sprout: Sprout families understand that everyday moments matter big in the lives of preschoolers. At Sprout, we call this approach "real life learning." Have you and your kids had any real life learning moments in the kitchen?

Estela: Making fresh orange juice is a big deal in our house. We are fortunate enough to have a few orange trees in our backyard.  With an endless supply of citrus, I thought it was a great opportunity to teach where juice actually comes from.  We also have a garden, which produces a variety of vegetables. We planted the garden together. She waters it daily and has witnessed our tomatoes and bell peppers come to life.