Eating habits are learned behaviors. They’re not intuitive, so what your children learn to eat at home early in life sticks with them well into adulthood.
Today we are disconnected from our food sources in a way that is unprecedented in human history. Fewer and fewer Americans cook meals from scratch because it’s easier and faster to throw a frozen dinner in the oven or grab something from a fast-food restaurant on the way home from work. Most parents know that their kids are under continuous assault by corporate food advertising but feel frustrated by and even powerless against it.
A few simple tools combined with a mantra of “variety, moderation and balance” will provide you with all you need to ensure the long-term nutritional health of your child.
1. Be a good role model. Many parents complain that their children refuse to eat healthfully and want magic recipes that will put an end to mealtime madness. The real problem most often lies with the parents, not the kids. Many of us don’t even know what good food is anymore. We can’t line our cabinets with packaged cereals and sodas and expect our kids to eat like they were raised on a commune in rural Vermont. We must educate ourselves first and then practice what we preach.
2. Take your kids shopping with you. Though it’s probably easier to go shopping alone, it’s important for kids to see foods in heir raw states so they can explore and ask questions. Take them when you’re not in a hurry and spend a lot of time in the aisles that contain unprocessed foods—the produce department, for example. If your child appears interested in a certain fruit or vegetable, encourage him or her to explore that item; don’t assume they won’t like it.
3. Be flexible! Moderation is the key. A cookie a day balanced with healthy foods is fine. A special treat once a week or even once a day won’t do any damage. On the contrary, it will help make eating a more enjoyable experience and will help your child build a good relationship with food.
4. Make mealtime special. First and foremost, sit down and enjoy your food. Take time to savor flavors. Children shouldn’t eat while walking around. Encourage conversation or make a ritual out of dinner, giving everyone a special task. Maybe even let kids plan and help make dinner one night a week. Don’t let mealtime degenerate into family argument time.
5. Don’t be a short-order cook. Make the same dinner for everyone in the family while making sure to put some foods on the plate that your children like—then add something new. If they don’t eat it, don’t make an argument out of it. Try again week after week. Eventually they’ll surprise you by at least tasting that new food.
6. Don’t buy into marketing for kids. Kids don’t need frozen chicken nuggets, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and pizza to keep them happy. And those kinds of food don’t make for healthy children. Highly processed foods are loaded with chemicals, synthetic fats, additives, artificial sweeteners, and food colorings. While your child may think he’ll implode without that blue applesauce, hold your ground and look for an organic applesauce explaining that both taste the same, but one has added things that aren’t healthful. Moderating your child’s television viewing can limit their exposure to the endless character-driven food advertising.
7. Don’t use food as rewards, bribes, or punishments. Stickers work just as well as M&M’s! It’s great to take the kids out for ice cream or frozen yogurt after a soccer game; just don’t use it as an incentive. On the flip side, don’t punish children for not eating certain foods. It will only foster a negative relationship between you and your children, not to mention between your children and food.
8. Let kids help in the kitchen. Even a 2-year-old can help peel potatoes or carrots. For smaller children, invest in a stool, like
The Learning Tower, that allows them to safely reach the kitchen counter so they can see what you’re doing, or set up a workstation at your child’s height so he can participate without having to stand on tiptoes. Taller children may only need a small wooden stepstool. Know your child’s limits and help him achieve success by providing support and encouragement in a safe setting. Involve your child in the cooking or snack preparation and they will be more likely to eat new foods, including fruits and vegetables.
9. Love and accept your child at any weight, size or shape. Childhood growth is unpredictable at best. A once-skinny child can suddenly plump up while his height catches up with his weight. Don’t be tempted to put your child on a diet. The best thing to do is to teach good eating habits.
10. Make sure your child eats breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day. If they don’t eat in the morning, they’ll be tired and unable to concentrate in school before lunch. Sugar first thing in the morning is not ideal. Breakfast should always include a source of protein, some healthy fats, carbs (whole grains are best), and vitamins and minerals.
11. Encourage your children to move their bodies. Studies have shown that vigorous exercise boosts the immune system and increases our ability to concentrate. Help your children find activities they enjoy and encourage them to get outside to play as often as possible.
12. Remember that you are the boss. Adults need to set the boundaries for kids because left to their own devices they usually choose salty and sugary processed foods over fresh, healthier choices. Children actually do much better when they know that they have boundaries and limits. Listen to your child, but set clear limits and guide them toward the healthier option.
Adapted from Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, by Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes (Collins, 2006).