We live in a world where more and more adults are ready to address their health. For those parents working to change their own diet for the better, they often find themselves struggling to change, or even feeling guilty about changing, their child’s diet. We can set aside the guilt immediately because we know that improving our child’s diet now, means setting them up for future success. Why would we feed our children what we ourselves, are trying to get away from?
This is not meant to be some judgmental blog post about how you need to be better or your kids will pay. It is also not meant to be a guilt-ridden blog post about how perfect I am, and you should be to. For every suggestion or guideline I offer below, I can give an immediate answer of how I have crossed it. My goal is to remind you, just as I remind myself, of things that can aide us in helping our children enjoy food while eating whole foods that serve their bodies well.
Whole foods are foods that have not been processed, refined, or had things added to them. Fish, eggs, meats, vegetables, fruits, and legumes all fall into this. French fries, cereal, noodles, sugars, and hot dogs do not. As Dr. Edmondson puts it, whole foods are as close to the Earth as possible. Unfortunately, this usually means they take work and a time commitment to prepare.
If you’re ready to work on changing what your family eats, be ready for resistance and be ready to stick to your convictions. A few weeks into my parents deciding my entire family needed to eat better, I can remember my sister screaming, “there’s nothing good to eat in this house!” She came around, I promise. In a book I was reading recently, after being told his family was eating whole foods, a young boy ran out into his front yard and yelled, “Then I don’t want to be a part of this family anymore!” You can be assured that the choices you’re making for your children are setting them up for a lifetime of healthy choices that go beyond just food.
Talk to your kids about why you’re changing how your family eats. Although you almost inevitably reduce calories when you change your diet for the better, that’s not what this is about, and I encourage you to shift your focus away from that line of thought. Instead, discuss how whole foods help to strengthen our bodies, give us energy, protect our hearts, and give us clear minds for thinking and learning.
Each time you introduce a new food, especially a vegetable, don’t be surprised when it’s rejected. Find multiple ways to fix it and use those on different nights. Somewhere, in all those recipes you find, you will find a way your kids like to eat it. Furthermore, include your kids in meal preparation. This won’t be doable every night but try for a couple meals a week to have them chop vegetables or even work at the stove if they’re ready for it. Little ones love to help with seasoning and measuring. For older kids, pick a vegetable and ask them to find a recipe they would be willing to try. Most older kids can prepare a dish or meal themselves. If they aren’t quite ready for that, cook alongside them so when the day comes for them to leave home, they can cook for themselves rather than resorting back to foods from the freezer aisle.
As a rule, you don’t want to become a short order cook who is making a different meal for the kids compared to the adults. Try to make sure each meal includes a food that is familiar and well liked in addition to foods that are new or may be a bit more of a challenge to convince them to eat. Have foods that are a variety of textures and colors. We all love a good, colorful plate of food.
The texture of vegetables changes drastically depending on how they are cooked. I love a vegetable just about any way it can be cooked. My 3yr old does not. For her, it worked to let her eat the vegetables I was cooking for dinner raw. She commonly stands next to me at the counter, popping sweet potatoes into her mouth as she loads them into a bowl to be seasoned. As she learned to enjoy the flavor while eating them in “crunchy” form, she became willing to try them in cooked form. Steamed vegetables can be delicious but for non-veggie loving children (and adults) it’s rarely the way to go. Seasoning a vegetable with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic and roasting them at a high heat gives a great flavor, often a crunch, and generally goes over much better.
Snacks are one of the hardest times to stick to the whole foods ideal and you won’t always be able to. But there are things to do to at least improve snack time. At my house, we’ve made a rule for our girls that at least one snack a day (in addition to what they’ve eaten at meal times) must be a vegetable. I stick to this rule instead of giving them something easier. I try to take time once a week to chop and rinse lettuce (my 7yo is more like me and loves a good salad), cauliflower, carrots, and cucumbers so there is a variety of vegetables they can choose from that we can easily pull from the fridge. As your kids get away from infancy and toddlerhood, they can decrease the number of snacks they eat a day to put a little more focus on getting most of their foods at meal time. This helps with cutting back on the so called “healthy” snacking that adds up to a lot more fruit than we need and few proteins or vegetables. Think about the fruit snacks, dried fruit, Nutrigrain bars, applesauce, fruit packs, and my go to of Larabars. They aren’t bad in and of themselves, but it gets to be too much when that’s what we rely on.
It can be maddening to spend time and energy on dinner only to have it rejected by your kids. When kids decide not to eat their dinner, try to keep it from being an emotional, guilt ridden battle. I’ve heard, “But I worked really hard to make that and if you don’t eat it, you’ll hurt my feelings.” Instead, when they’re asking you for something else, try to respond with something like, “It’s okay if you decide not to eat your dinner but if you’re not hungry enough for this, you’re not hungry enough for anything else.” This works better at lunch time when you aren’t about to enter your bedtime routine but try to not get rid of (or eat) what they haven’t finished. Instead place it in the refrigerator and, when they come back asking for a snack, simply remind them if they’re hungry you can get their meal back out. Expect a meltdown the first three (or twenty in my 3-year old’s case) times you do this. They really do learn, and you really will survive the process.
On the topic of dessert; I’ve often heard myself saying, “Well if you don’t eat that, you won’t get dessert.” But this makes the dinner all about getting to dessert and keeps kids from focusing on what is in front of them. Dessert isn’t wrong to have but try to avoid having it every night and try to keep from using it as the motivation to eat what is on their plate. Furthermore, dessert does not need to be ice cream or cake or pie. Dessert could mean you put the leftovers of a fruit and almond butter smoothie into a popsicle mold or a treat of raspberries after dinner.
I absolutely recognize there are children out there who are more than “just picky.” Children who have very serious food aversions. If you are battling this, talk to us and together we can work out a treatment plan to help you both work through those aversions.
For those of you that know me, you know I love a good conversation about healthy eating. What you may not know is that I also LOVE food. I love food for its variety of textures and flavors, as well as for what it can do for us. I love that food nurtures us (heart and soul), gives us strength and energy, influences our moods, help us prevent disease, and brings us comfort. For those of you that know me, you probably aren’t surprised this is what I chose to write about.
If you have questions about what I’ve written or concerns about yours or your child’s diet, please talk to us. As a primary care clinic, one of our main goals is to partner with you to help prevent disease and illness while also partnering with you to resolve or manage existing issues. We are ready for your questions and feel privileged you have chosen us to aide you and your family in your journey for better health.