Being a nutritionist who works regularly with families, and having two children of my own, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Kids today are exposed to more than their fair share of questionable food messages, whether it be through advertising, friends, at parties, at the school canteen, vending machines, or even through family. Sometimes the push towards junk food and processed food can seem insurmountable!
What’s a well-intentioned, health-conscious parent to do? Can we really raise kids who “get it” when it comes to looking after their own health and wellbeing?
The answer, I believe, is a firm yes. Sure it takes patience, persistence and perseverance (just like all aspects of parenting). It doesn’t expect perfection (we’re all human after all). And we’ll still love and accept our kids no matter what. But we can empower our kids to be savvy when it comes to their health, with these five simple steps.
1. Keep it Fun
Ditch the scare-tactics, coercion, or bribery, and focus on keeping it fun. Don’t be afraid to get creative with food. It’s okay to create “broccoli trees” growing from “woodland lentil floors” or “green bean bridges” across “rice savannas”. Perhaps make a “dinosaur green smoothie,” a “Tinkerbell green smoothie,” or let kids concoct their own fruit and vegetable blends.
Mealtimes, for the most part, should be happy and relaxed. Yes, I hear you parents-of-toddlers and preschoolers sniggering (or despairing)! And I’ve certainly had my share of chaotic mealtimes. What I mean is that mealtimes shouldn’t be constantly associated with negativity or difficult emotions. It might not be possible every time, but we should do our best to keep mealtimes positive.
Another fun strategy is to get a little dirty by starting a garden with your kids. I see my kids get so excited to discover and bring me whatever treasures they find in ours, and demand that I cook them for dinner!
2. Impart Knowledge
Don’t be afraid to arm kids with some (age-appropriate) knowledge about making healthy food choices. Some conversation topics that crop up regularly for us are:
- Why it’s good to eat vegetables and other whole foods
- What are treats and why we should limit them (see more on that below!)
- Why we choose organic where we can (but it’s okay if that option isn’t always available!)
- How different people like different foods and that’s okay
- It’s okay to change your mind about liking particular foods — this one is really important!
- Gratitude for food and where it came from
- How to listen to our body telling us when it’s hungry and when it’s full
And if your kids don’t like hearing it from you (don’t worry, you’re not alone!), enlist a trusted person who the kids do want to listen to, to help with knowledge sharing. Then let your children come to “educate” you about how to eat healthily, and smile to yourself that they are feeling so empowered.
3. Redefine “Kid Food”
In today’s world, kid food is often defined as chicken nuggets, cheese pizza, macaroni and cheese, fish sticks, goldfish crackers. But this really is a false (and only relatively recent) distinction. There isn’t really any reason why kids can’t eat “adult food” like brown rice, and vegetables in vegetable-like form. In fact, I know a lot of kids who will happily chomp on foods like broccoli, olives, dark chocolate, red bell peppers, and cucumbers.
As I was putting together material for this article, I asked my kids, ages four and six “What should other kids know about being healthy?” Here’s their response:
Older child: “Eat lots of vegetables”
Younger child: “Especially green ones!”
Older child: “Eat treats not so often…like once a week.”
Younger child: “Try not to eat them all up in one go!”
Sound advice (and proud Mommy moment)! Kids loved to be asked their opinion just as we do; and anything we can do to help them be positively empowered is good.
That said, not every kid is going to like every food, so taste preferences do come into play (and don’t despair if your child won’t yet eat anything green!). Strong flavors such as vinegary-brines and hot spices aren’t for everyone. And of course some foods should be off limits for kids such as alcohol and caffeine. But other than that, the main difference between adult and child food should be age-appropriate food sizing, such as chopped up foods for younger kids and avoiding choking hazards like whole nuts or popcorn for very young tots.*
Since the childhood years are formative when it comes to setting adult food preferences, it pays to start a “real food” diet right from the get go.
4. Set Guidelines for Treats
Ruling out all treats such as candy, cookies, chips or sodas can backfire with secret binging and cravings in later years. So it’s best to show kids what treats are appropriate, and when.
In our house, we categorize foods into three “buckets” to help our kids easily contextualize their food choices. It’s super simple: (1) healthy foods for eating every day, (2) treat foods for eating once or twice a week, and (3) avoid foods (such as caffeine, alcohol, any allergens/reactive foods).
So what’s a treat food? It may surprise you that I consider some “everyday” items to be treats, such as fruit juice, store-bought sweetened yogurts, or gummy fruit snacks. Where I can, I provide healthier versions, such as smoothies, plain yogurt with maple syrup, dried fruits or oatmeal-banana cookies, which are suitable for more frequent consumption. Cake is saved for parties and celebrations.
Older kids will have increasing access to food outside the home. Avoid being judgmental about their food choices since this may only fuel rebellion. Instead, continue to build their knowledge and lead by example. You will be surprised how much this can rub off.
5. Don’t Despair! Remember Patience, Persistence, Perseverance
Parents understandably worry when their child is picky or refuses to eat foods prepared for them. If this is you, remember that kids are ultimately responsible for what they decide to eat. No one can force anyone to eat anything. And yes, kids will often use this control point to the exasperation of their parents. Who can blame them, really, since so much else in their life is controlled for them!
The key is to take the control issue off the table completely; don’t try to fight it. This is definitely the place to whip out the “patience, persistence, and perseverance” mantra and focus on these areas that you can control, especially in the earlier years:
- What: We can highly influence what foods are available to our children, especially in the home and in school lunch boxes.
- When: We can set the timing of meals, ideally at regular times each day and before excess hunger drives poor food choices (and frazzled parents!).
- How: We can set the context of the meal, whether it be in front of the TV, on the run, or (ideally) seated with others at the table.
- Getting Help: Parents must also take responsibility for seeking professional help if needed, such as if a child has severely limited food variety, or if they are having trouble gaining weight or participating effectively at school or in other activities.
Remember that children are also naturally cautious about new flavors, as most of us tend to be! It can take a dozen exposures before accepting or liking a food. Experiment with a few different ways of preparing new foods, and combining them with flavors your child already likes. Try out the concept of “taste-testing” that we use in our house. This means kids can try out any new food or food preparation without fear of being made to eat a whole bunch of it. And they love the feeling of control and having their opinion matter (don’t we all!).
Above all, remember that your most effective tool is empowerment. When your kids are armed with the knowledge and tools to support their health, they will grow into health-empowered adults.
*Parents should follow the advice of their pediatrician when it comes to infant feeding.
Romilly Hodges, MSc