It’s often said that being a parent is the hardest job. Possibly the most difficult part is raising healthy eaters who also have a good relationship with food. Parents want their kids to enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods, but also be able to eat fun foods on occasion, like candy, desserts and chips, without getting overly obsessed.

Almost all kids go through a phase of picky eating. It’s natural as parents to want to set rules forcing them to try “just one bite” or finish a certain food before eating another more desirable food. Unfortunately this backfires, as wholesome foods like fruits and vegetables get viewed as punishment. Instead, expose your child to lots of different foods in a positive environment and let them play, experiment, and discover what they enjoy!

One of my favorite ways to do this is in the kitchen. Children are naturally curious. If they help prepare something, they’ll be more likely to eat it themselves.

For very young children, let them sit in the kitchen as they cook. Give them a set of non-breakable kitchen utensils to play “cook” with you. If appropriate, let them smell, taste or touch some of the ingredients.

As children get older, they can take on more tasks. Cleaning and scrubbing produce is a good place to start. They may even help with prep work, including measuring, mixing and stirring ingredients. Children can also do vegetable prep that doesn’t involve knives, such as tearing lettuce into bite sized pieces, snapping asparagus stems, or pulling the strings off string beans.

At an appropriate age, teach your child good knife skills and invest in a good knife – dull knifes are more likely to slip and cut. By the time they’re teens, you’ll have a professional sous chef!

Remember, the goal of your time together is to nourish a healthy relationship with food so make your time cooking together a positive experience. Save difficult conversations for another time.

I credit my parents with teaching me to cook as one of the reasons behind my career as a dietitian and my passion for tasty and wholesome food. One of the first dishes we cooked together was spaghetti and meatballs. This recipe for meatballs with a very slight kick of heat is still my go-to. If you’re worried that your child is particularly sensitive to spicy food, just leave the cayenne out.

Spiced Spaghetti and Meatballs
Serves 4-6


For the meatballs:

  • 1 ½ cups whole grain panko breadcrumbs
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 lb ground beef, preferably grass-fed
  • ½ onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 egg
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • ½ teaspoon oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

For the spaghetti:

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
  • 28 ounce can pureed tomatoes
  • 8 ounces whole grain spaghetti
  • Parmesan cheese, for serving


  1. Add panko and milk together in a large bowl. Let sit for five minutes.
  2. To the breadcrumb mixture, add ground beef, onion, garlic, egg, spices, salt and black pepper. Using clean hands, mix together until well combined. Form into 16-18 meatballs slightly smaller than a golf ball and set on a clean plate.
  3. Bring large pot of water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain and set aside until ready to use.
  4. Heat olive oil on medium high heat. Add meatballs and fry until browned on all sides. Remove meatballs to a clean plate and set aside while making sauce.
  5. Heat olive oil for sauce in a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add pepper and sauté another 5 minutes. Add bay leaves, chili flakes, and pureed tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook 10 minuets. Season with salt and black pepper.
  6. Place meatballs in simmering sauce. Cover and cook 10 minutes until meatballs are cooked through. Divide spaghetti between bowls, top with meatballs and sauce. Serve with parmesan cheese.
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About the Author

Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE, CLT

Rachael Hartley is a private practice dietitian and food and wellness blogger at The Joy of Eating. She believes loving every bite of food is central to living a happy and healthy life. Through her practice and blog, Rachael inspires clients and readers to rediscover the joy of eating with nourishment, not deprivation, and to nurture a healthy relationship with food. Follow along on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.