Hint: It’s all about the name.

By Marisa Cohen
Updated July 18, 2017
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Unhappy Child at Meal Time
Credit: onebluelight/Getty Images

If your child insists on always having the same dinner every night (Chicken nuggets and fries? Plain pasta with butter?) there is a very simple way to get him to try something new: Rebrand it with a funny name.

A new study from University of Buffalo demonstrates the power of language to influence children’s food choices: When a restaurant gave kids placemat menus that listed more nutritious choices under names like “gobble-me-up turkey” and “the nutty monkey,” the kids were much more likely to order those items than when they were simply called “turkey on whole wheat” or “peanut butter and banana sandwich.”

“The world has changed, and many kids are now telling their parents what they will eat rather than the other way around,” says nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Superfood Swap. “It doesn’t have to be a battle,” she adds. “It may take a few tries, but if you consistently offer a variety of nutritious foods in appealing ways, your kids will eventually try them.” Here are a few strategies to try:

Unhappy Child at Meal Time
Credit: onebluelight/Getty Images

Come Up With a Clever Name.

You don’t have to wait for a restaurant menu to come up with an appealing name for healthy foods. My daughters loved eating “Jack’s magic beans” (edamame) and “tiny trees with cheese” (broccoli) when they were younger. When they were obsessed with SpongeBob Square Pants, I told them I would make SpongeBob’s favorite Crabby Patties, and they gobbled up the super-healthy salmon burgers with glee.

Let Them Get Dirty Helping You Cook.

Sure, kids can make a mess when they try to “help” in the kitchen, but studies show when they are involved in meal preparation, they are much more likely to eat fruits and vegetables. Younger kids can wash veggies, help toss a salad, or roll chicken breasts in panko for a healthy, homemade version of their favorite chicken fingers. Older kids can help chop veggies, crack eggs, and even plan menus.

Pretend You’re in a Restaurant.

I had a babysitter who would write down a “menu” on a piece of colored paper (a variety of healthy snacks with a few of those clever names from above) and let the kids check off their order. They would giggle as she said, “Hi Hon, welcome to Lindsey’s Grill. What can I get you today?”

Or Take Them to a Real Restaurant—With a Caveat.

A fancy dress-up date out with Mom or Dad? Yes, please! Instead of heading to the same old fast-food chain, however, invite your child to a real “grown-up” restaurant as a special treat, and tell her it’s only for big kids and adults, so there is no children’s menu. Look at the options together online before you go, and pick out one or two items to share that look interesting. Tell her if she does a good job tasting new things, you can make this a regular date.

Grow Your Own Veggies.

If you have space in your yard, plant a vegetable garden with your child. When he sees that seed turn into a carrot or radish, he will likely want to taste the fruits of his labors. If you don’t have the space (or a green thumb), visit a farmers market, suggests Blatner. “You can pick out colorful vegetables and talk to the farmer about the best ways to cook it.”