Maybe it was the convenient fast food that came with a toy and access to a playground. Perhaps it was the colorful packaging of sugar-filled cereals and snacks. Or maybe, as parents, we’d simply let our family’s healthy eating habits slide. Whatever the case, at some point my children began to consider eating as another form of entertainment. And if a meal didn’t contain that “fun” something (read: unhealthy), my kids would pick over every bite. I constantly worried they weren’t getting enough nutrients. Something had to change.
So we began an ongoing conversation with our kids about viewing food not as fun, but as fuel. We asked our kids to contribute to meal planning, letting them select from a range of menu items that provide what our bodies need. We talked about eating better starches (whole grain breads and pastas) and adding more color to our meals (carrots, grapes, green beans). We talked about calories and energy, sugars and fats. As they began to think of food as a means to an end — a source of energy — our kids began to have a more positive attitude about eating healthier foods. Of course, children’s food preferences often take time to mature, and progress can be slow. As you work through this period of adjustment, consider these strategies:
Model it. If your kids see you making better food choices, they’ll be more likely to do the same. Resist the temptation to raid the cookie jar or the snack shelf 20 minutes before dinnertime.
Stick to a routine. Set your family’s meal and snack times, and aim to keep them consistent every day. If your kids aren’t hungry at snack-time, let them wait until the next meal. For the in-between times, stick to water. Children may lose their appetite for meals if their tummies are filled with milk or juice.
Start small. Kids may need time to adjust to a new food. Start with tiny portions of new foods, giving your kids the freedom to ask for more. With my kids, even one bite of steamed broccoli on their plate made me happy. As my kids chewed and swallowed, I affirmed them with comments like, “Oh, your body is thanking you!”
Mix it up. Avoid meals where every item is new. Serve new foods along with a food you know your kids will enjoy. Also, consider creative approaches to the menu — perhaps breakfast foods for dinner, or tasty dipping sauces for veggies.
Redefine dessert time. Many parents offer their kids dessert as the reward for eating a good dinner. This can teach kids that the sweet stuff is the better stuff. Avoid bribing your kids with a cookie or a slice of pie and consider a tweak in how your family defines dessert. Yogurt or fresh fruit may be all the sweetness your family needs.
And enjoy food yourself. Healthy eating habits are for kids and adults.