I have been wanting to do a post about healthy eating and kids but, being home with my kids and having extra things to do related to homeschooling, cooking, cleaning, etc... has ironically delayed my writing. As a positive, being home more has given me extra time to focus on my kids nutrition and it has also helped broaden their tastes with limited amounts of their favorites on hand.
I’ll start by giving you some background into where I started learning about what kids eat...When I was 23 years old I had completed my bachelors degree and had just finished up a one-year internship and grad classes making me eligible to take the registered dietitian exam and get a real job as an RD. So with the energy of youth I finished my internship in Nashville, Tennessee on a Friday, packed up my stuff, drove 8 hours home to Ohio and started my first career job on that Monday as a WIC Dietitian in Toledo, Ohio. I thought I knew a lot of things because of what I had learned in college classes about what kids should be eating but I was unprepared for the WIC system and all of the many things kids will not eat. Some of the main concerns I would hear on repeat were: “My kids are so picky they won’t try anything new. My kids will not eat any vegetables. My kids refuse to eat meat. My kids love anything with sugar and I have a hard time saying no to them. My kids only eat junk food.” Of course being 23 and right out of college I had little experience actually listening for the real problems and plenty of advice to give out….”Oh, your kids don’t like vegetables well you need to keep offering them.” While true in theory however if you are on WIC with limited grocery store access, transportation, etc...this is probably not what you are going to spend much time worrying about. I worked there for 4 years, grew up quite a bit and learned so much. Fast forward to having my own kids and teaching them to eat healthy=not exactly as easy as I made it sound all those years ago!
There are several tried and true methods for raising a healthy and flexible eater. Through research, years of experience and now using my own kids as models there are a few things I have found to overlap:
1. As the parent you get to choose the WHAT, WHEN and WHERE related to meals and snacks. You pick out the food, purchase it and generally do the cooking of it. These are your responsibilities. Your child gets to choose whether or not they will eat the food you offer and how much they will eat. Until they get a job and start paying for their own food they are pretty much stuck with what you choose. If you choose to buy a bunch of junk food and then complain they eat too much junk food then you are part of the problem.
2. Work to introduce new foods often and model by eating them as well. Children learn a lot from their parents eating habits. If they see you eating the same stuff everyday or eating junk food while expecting them to try spinach I guarantee its not going to end well. When introducing new foods try pairing them with other favorites, let them play with it first, serve it family style so they can choose, make new foods look pretty or interesting and eat it together. Don’t bias the new food or healthy food by labeling it good or bad. It may take a couple times offering a new food for it to be accepted. And very important, if your kids never see you eat vegetables they will probably not like vegetables either. Nonetheless; there are some foods your kids won’t ever eat just like you have foods you do not like as well.
3. Don’t bribe your kids to eat their vegetables so they can have dessert. This can work in the short term but it creates long term problems. When you use food as a reward they end up thinking the reward food is better than other foods and end up wanting it more often. It creates a hard to break cycle over time. It also teaches kids that healthier choices are not as desirable and puts treats on a pedestal which can create emotional connections to foods instead of keeping all foods neutral. I very often put a dessert item on my kids dinner plate (along with the meal) and sure enough without any prompting or comments they may or may not eat it first but then go on to eat what they want of the other items.
4. Getting kids involved in the cooking and baking process can help with trying new foods (and it also is teaching them valuable lessons!). Try having them help with rinsing fruits and vegetables, chopping with a duller knife, measuring and pouring ingredients, stirring-even if it is an unnecessary step, moving food from one bowl to another and retrieving needed measuring tools. The more they feel like they had a part in the meal or snack the more likely they are to eat it.
The healthier your child's relationship is with food at an early age the more likely they are to avoid the never ending diets, poor body image and eating disorders that adolescence and adulthood brings for so many of us.