I've gone deep in the last couple of months on how to improve my kids eating habits. There are a lot of great resources out there from Ellyn Satter's books, to the awesome It's Not about Nutrition blog to recent book French Kids Eat Everything. Here are the 10 rules I've distilled from those sources.
1) Fruit or Veggies at every meal or snack
By far the easiest way to improve your kids nutrition *and* get them used to eating good food is to serve fruits or vegetables or both at every single meal, including snacks. While I try to make these fresh fruits and vegetables most of the time, frozen, dried or sauced/pouched are my "emergency" rations.
2) "One happy bite"
This is the biggest "lightbulb" moment for me -- it's not about getting the undesirable food into their tummies, it's about training their tastebuds. Even tasting and spitting it out starts to train the tastebuds -- how awesome is that? The toddler regularly eats apples and sugar snap peas by chewing them up and spitting them out, and that's just fine. And it takes the pressure off -- trying new things is not a commitment to eating a lot of it. (Likewise, serve very small portions of challenging foods -- 3 small bites is less daunting than a quarter of a plate.)
3) Limit kid food to "special treats"
Goldfish. Applesauce pouches. Puffs. My toddler would live on these foods if I let her (and they taste good, don't they?), but they are training her to prefer crunchy, slurpable food products instead of "real" food. My new guideline is to let both girls have them when they are offered by others, but to avoid them except for holidays and celebrations. (And puffs we went cold turkey on -- they were just *too* enticing.)
I also try to eat at ethnic restaurants that don't have a kid's menu at least half the time. (I'd love to wean them off of the kid's menu at other restaurants, but it is hard once you have readers or have set up precedents.)
4) Don't eat or serve the same things in a row.
A lot of kid's eating habits are just that -- habit. Since *you* get to decide what your kids are offered, don't offer the same favorite habitual things every meal or snack. I try to rotate fruits (and the meals they are served with), snacks, meals, breakfasts so they are different from day to day and meal to meal. Keep them guessing! (And teach them they can't demand whatever they want, although I do sometimes allow choices between one or two things.)
5) Always serve something you know they'll like, but...
This is more of a "parents peace of mind" tactic, but if you put something (healthy) that you know they'll like on the table, then everyone has a fallback when you serve more challenging food.
6) "Course" it out so that the "favorite" default foods are served *after* the challenging foods.
This was the best way to get the toddler to start eating better -- once she saw her favorite foods on the table, she wanted them! So now I start with cold vegetable starter, and keep the fruit, bread, cheese or yogurt for last. It also works with the 7 year old -- she's much more likely to eat a couple bites of cucumber if it's on the table while she's setting it than if it's competing with the main course.
7) Don't serve "bad" food just for the "nutrients."
This is things like fruit juice with vegetable juice in it or veggie bootie. Your kids are getting enough nutrients. Teach them treats are treats, and should be treated as such.
8) Realize there are multiple attributes -- flavor, texture, temperature -- that affects how something "tastes."
Identifying these patterns allowed me to see that the 7 year old would eat "crispy" vegetables, so we expanded from the occasional carrot into raw sugar snap peas, cucumber rounds, celery sticks, krispy kale and bell peppers. We also work on the texture of things like split pea soup by watering it down so it's more palatable.
9) Treat tasting new food as a science experiment.
When my girls weren't into fresh peaches, we experimented with peach flavored applesauce, freeze dried peaches, canned peaches, as well as fresh peaches. You can see how this relates to #8 as well. After her "one happy bite", I ask my 7 year old to describe how something tastes -- most vegetables are "green and potatoes", but when she used that on raw jicama, I "called" her on being lazy.
10) Put them in charge.
I always read the "Let your kids cook, they will be more likely to eat it" advice and never found it to work with my oldest. (She also grows vegetables she won't eat.) However, when I wanted her to start eating soup, it did work to provide bowls of meat, vegetables, pasta, broth, and flavorings so that she could put together her own soups (and her parents could add sriracha sauce to theirs!).
I developed and implemented these rules for my family slowly, but I feel much more confident that we are all eating much better and they are developing healthy habits for life. I hope they help you too.