If you’ve got kids (or you are still a kid), you probably know this scenario all too well.

Kid has sporting event; he/she packs any cookies, granola bars, crackers or candy you have in the kitchen to take with. Kid asks for money to get food after the sporting event. Money is spent on Burger King on the way home. 

You know they aren’t making great choices, but you go with the flow anyways. You may get the chance to pack them a decent snack once in a while or make them dinner on nights when they just have practice. You want them to eat better, but they don’t seem to like many of the options you’re giving them. You start to notice this, so you think this is a great time to get them to try something healthier, so you say, “Here, try what I’m eating today.”

Kid scrunches his/her nose and says, “This isn’t very good.”

Or kid says more bluntly, “Mom/Dad, what the heck is this garbage?”

Your hopes are dashed, so you go back to the drawing board to think of something new. In the meantime, your little athlete goes back to eating whatever pre-packaged, processed snack they’re used to and they’re happy as a clam.

I know dealing with this sort of thing is tough. I’ve been through it myself (as the kid, not the parent) and it is not easy to change. It takes time. It takes patience (from the kid and the parent). It takes a lot of trial and error. And most importantly, it takes buy-in from the kid. They’re the one who has to eat the new food/snack, show it to their friends and teammates, and take possible ridicule and joke-making on top of that. They’re the one having to pass up on the junk their friends are eating and not give in by tossing the good snack they have for the familiar and addicting snacks everyone else has.

So what can you do?

  1. Make sure your son/daughter doesn’t think you’re forcing them to change what they eat just because you want them to. They need to know you’re doing it because you care about their health and want them to have better habits than what you had (or currently have) because they become a lot harder to break as you get older. (If you have your own personal example of why it would be wise to improve their habits now, now’s your chance to share it with them). Kids usually like to know that you’re watching out for them, even if the message isn’t fully received right away (like the example above) – but eventually, it will be.
    1. I get extremely jacked when an athlete of mine says hey Joe, look what I brought! *Proudly holds up something they think I’d “approve of”* Even if 80% of my athletes never do that, I at least have the other 20% thinking about making better choices already, and that’s a good start.
  2. Ease them into it. The examples of foods and snacks below are just ideas. They don’t need to completely replace what they currently eat so they go cold-turkey, but even adding something from the list along with what they currently have or in replace of one out of the 3 junk food items they take with them is a good start. Introduce one vegetable to them per week and see how they like it. Try adding an egg or two to their current breakfast of Pop-Tarts or Reese’s Puffs and see where it leads you.
  3. Make it a “family”, “mother-daughter”, or “father-son” type of experiment so they’re not the only ones changing. Support for them is just as important as the support you’d need to make a lifestyle or diet change. This way, you can go through the ups and downs together because you’re also trying to improve your health for whatever reason.
    1. Give them choices as well, so they feel like they still have a say (which they should). For example, pick out 3 things you think would be good for them, and let them choose, or have them decide what type of protein/veggie you’re going to have with dinner, and let them help prepare it.
  4. Explain that this type of thing isn’t what most kids do, but most kids don’t have great eating habits and those habits WILL catch up to them eventually. They will likely get grief from their friends and that’s okay, it’s part of the process, unfortunately. If they don’t have thick skin, encourage them to explain to their friends why they’re eating what they are to help them understand.


If you’re the parent of a high school student, or even younger, who you know should be making better choices and who struggles with eating well and could be classified as a “picky eater”, show them this old photo of me.


That’s what a kid looks like after eating too much of the yummy stuff and who took too long to see the obvious signs around him. This kid played sports year-round and was constantly outside being active. Not even a full-time athlete (who you’d think has a high metabolism) can out train a diet packed with processed foods. Some of my favorites included ice cream (still is, of course), Little Debbies, chips, cookies, fast food, pop, pizza, sugared cereal, and baked goods.

Now, I wasn’t constantly eating them and neglecting things like fruits, veggies, and lean protein, because I ate those too. The problem was I just ate too much of the “not so good” stuff that there wasn’t a ton of room for enough of the “good” stuff.

I’m fortunate enough to have gone through the process of poor health to good health at a young (ish) age to where I probably prevented damage that could have impacted my long-term health for the worse (more than it already had). Looking back at young Joe around age 12-15, a lot of people would say, “Oh, all kids look like that at that age,” or “you just hadn’t hit your growth spurt yet.” This may be true for some kids, but with my eating habits at the time, highly unlikely. After going to college and learning a few things along with reading countless articles, studies, and books on the subject, I’m fairly certain I was on the path to being pre-diabetic or diabetic before I graduated. The signs became obvious.

Just about every single morning before school I would eat: ~1-2 bowls of sugared cereal (9-12g sugar per serving, usually 2-3 servings in a bowl for me), a yogurt (~9-12g sugar), 1-2 pieces of fruit (10-20+g sugar), and a half to a whole cinnamon raisin or blueberry bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter on top (~5-15g sugar). After a very high carb breakfast like that, I was hungry and tired, dosing off in class by 9 or 10 am. The roller coaster ride of insulin spikes and blood sugar drops I was going through every morning would be obvious to me now, but at that age, I just thought I needed more sleep. If your child has this issue, you may want to get on top of it sooner rather than later.

That damage had already been done, but not without learning from it. There’s a reason type II diabetes is no longer just referred to as “adult onset” diabetes – it’s because it’s wreaking havoc on children without them even knowing. The choices they make aren’t always their fault, they just need some extra help and they usually aren’t getting it.

If your kid has troubles eating healthier snacks, have them try most, if not all, of the things on this list. (Also, check out this page for some bomb easy meal/snack ideas to try).

  • Trail mix – made from scratch
    • Raw or lightly salted nuts of your choice (~2-4 types)
    • Dried fruit like raisins, craisins, strawberries, etc. (those hard-covered banana chips are actually not a great choice)
    • A decent cereal (that contains some fiber and/or protein) such as Quaker Oatmeal Squares or Go Lean Clusters
    • If they’re having trouble with the adjustment, throw in some dark chocolate chips or M&M’s
  • Fruit with a heavy helping of nut butter (almond, peanut, cashew, sunflower, etc.)
  • String cheese
  • Greek yogurt that doesn’t have more sugar than protein per serving (Yoplait Greek 100 and Oikos Triple Zero are good options)
  • “Protein cookies/protein balls” (these can easily be made into a junk food, so be aware of what you’re putting in them) with ingredients along the lines of:
    • Oats
    • Natural peanut butter/nut butter of choice
    • Honey
    • Ground flaxseed
    • Dark chocolate chips
    • Protein powder
    • Unsweetened cocoa powder
    • Ground garbanzo beans (if you’re feeling crazy)
  • Protein/energy bars such as thinkThin, Pure Protein or Quest
  • Hard boiled eggs (with salt or hummus for extra flavor)

We can’t blame our kids for making poor choices if we haven’t educated them on the subject. As a parent, coach, teacher or friend, you have the power to influence what the kids around you eat, or at least how they think about eating, even if they haven’t started to make better decisions just yet.