Use these simple tips to help your kids understand how to make wholesome food choices on their own and to create an environment that will nurture healthy food habits as they grow.
1. Work with your kids’ natural preferences
Kids require frequent refueling–and they’d love to do it with fudge cookies and lollipops. “Children are born with a natural taste and desire for sweet foods and carbohydrates,” says Joel Fuhrman, MD, board certified family physician and author of Disease Proof Your Child (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006). Instead of fighting a sweet tooth, offer healthier treats, such as a colorful array of fresh fruit. “Preparation is key,” says Jay Holt, a nutritionist in St. Petersburg, Florida, and author of The Adventures of Tommy the Tomato (JR Holt Publishing, 2007). “Always have a fruit salad ready to go, or frozen banana, or apples to spread with almond butter. That way, kids will have a fast, nutritious alternative to a cookie.”
2. Involve the whole family
Cooking with your children helps you get them invested in making healthy choices and explain the nutritional value of various foods. At the grocery store, let them choose the fruits and vegetables that appeal to them, or make a game of it: Ask them to find their favorite green, orange, and red vegetables, or to choose which nuts or beans they’d like to add to a salad.
3. Encourage children to think about food
Raising healthy eaters also means helping them understand what their bodies are asking for, when they’re thirsty or hungry, and the difference between eating until they’re satisfied versus stuffed. Don’t get heavy or intense about it; just make the occasional observation, then let it go. And forget the clean-plate club–it’s the fastest way to encourage kids to ignore their bodies’ messages.
4. Don’t reward or punish with food
This sends the subtle message that food equals love and approval–a dangerous message, and one that’s hard to escape later in life. Instead of using food as a reward, offer treats that have more to do with connecting–a trip to their favorite park, hugs, an extra book at bedtime. And don’t fall into the “If you eat your peas, you’ll get your pie” trap. It makes dessert more valuable than vegetables–not a lesson you want to teach.
5. Take charge
Sometimes we’re so fearful of creating negative food relationships for our children that we shy away from insisting on good eating habits. Insist your children eat at least a portion of fruits or vegetables at every meal, and that they minimize sweets, refined carbs, and unhealthy fats. Tell them why that’s your rule–because you love them and want them to be healthy. “There’s no reason to be fearful of that message,” says Fuhrman, “or to believe that it will set up unhealthy emotional eating patterns later in life.”
6. Realize that it takes time
This will take time and repetition. Your kids may put up a fight, especially at first, and there will be setbacks. Stay calm and be matter-of-fact. Also avoid power struggles, and continue to set a good example with your own food choices. “They’ll notice what you and the rest of the family are eating,” says Pavka. “At some point, they’ll just come along for the ride.”
Delicious Living is the go-to resource for the natural and organic lifestyle, helping readers eat well, live green, and stay healthy. Visit deliciouslivingmag.com for more articles and free recipes.