Whether you are a parent, grandparent, uncle, teacher, or nurturing the child within, this article is for you! How you eat, what you eat, and how you talk about food matters. Cultivating a healthy relationship with food begins early.
Picky adults make picky children. I see this all the time in my practice. It is critical for parents to model the behavior, the adventurous spirit, and healthy relationship with food that you want your kids to have. According to a systemic review published earlier this year by the JAMA Pediatrics Journal, one in five children show signs of disordered eating, such as food-restricting, calorie counting and over-exercising.
The day that I wrote this article, I had an 8-year old client who was asking their mom “Will this make me fat?” and who already binges on sweets then runs extra after practice. It is so much more difficult (and painful) to reverse these behaviors than to prevent them. So, how do you get the child in your life to eat spinach? Or not binge on sugary treats any time they’re available? Or to try new things? Or be kind to themselves around their desires for foods?
One of the best ways to do this is to teach kids the value of food, the sources of our food, and the connection between feeling well and what they put in their mouths. Here are a few tips toward these goals:
Don’t restrict foods or hide them. Teach kids the importance of moderation and have conversations around balance. I grew up in a household where my parents didn’t allow any junk food or sweets ever! Halloween candy was confiscated after the first day. So when I was at an event, I would gorge myself on sweets with the mentality that this is the only time I’ll ever eat it. And I’d stuff myself till it hurt. This created a binging relationship with food since it was scarce, and we never had conversations around the “why?” I urge parents not to hide sweet treats or to banish them completely, but to try to make or purchase healthier versions (lower added sugar, no trans-fat) and then model moderation. Then have conversations around balance: “The cookie is very yummy, right? Can you taste how sweet these carrots are as well? And lets try them dipped in hummus too so you have good long term energy.”
Take control of what is in the house. You have the power over what gets purchased. Too often, I hear something like, “My kid won’t stop eating boxes of goldfish,” or “They’ll only eat mac and cheese.” As an alternative, get the cauliflower cheddar snacks or an organic whole grain cracker with more protein. Make your own mac and cheese from whole grain pasta or chickpea pasta or purchase a brand that uses real cheese and add coconut oil instead of margarine or butter. Kids will adapt sooner than you think. They do not have the brand loyalty or nostalgia that adults do. And if the unhealthy stuff isn’t around they will eat the good stuff that is.
Keep exposing your kids to new foods. It can take ten exposures for a child to like the food. Make it fun. Add different sauces or spices. Steam it, serve it raw, air fry it, roast it, sauté it, puree it. Keep presenting it in different ways. You, the parent, has to take the lead on this. Together. It won’t work if dad won’t eat a vegetable. Model trying new things. Vary your meals up. Get your kids involved in picking new things to try and make it exciting. Pull options out of a hat. Pick a different country on the map to try something from there.
Minimize demonstrating your own emotions and feelings about food. This goes both ways. I have seen parents overemphasize their restrictive diet to their kids. And I have also seen parents use their kids as a way to emotionally eat or binge eat junk food (dad has had a bad day, so let’s get pizza, wings, and cheesy bread then we’ll all have stomach aches under the veil of “Billy loves Dominos.”).
Have healthy snacks handy. Remember that kids’ tummies and their portions are much smaller than most adults think. They may need food pre-dinner. They may only be able to eat a few nibbles of different things at a meal and then get full. One slice of pizza and one XL cookie is too big of a portion for most kids under 13. So expecting them to eat 1 slice and a salad may not be realistic when they’re already filled up on pizza. Offer half or a 1/3 of a slice and veggies instead. Offer two chicken nuggets and veggies instead of five. They can always get seconds. Slow down mealtimes. Kids are more intuitive than most adults when it comes to being hungry and full. Help them learn to trust their bodies. Part of this means slowing down meals so kids can sense when they are full and allow time to experience the food. Don’t force feed, and don’t overload their plates either. Plan to at least have a few meals each week where you can sit down as a family and have a full hour to enjoy.
Don’t use food as a reward. If you tell them, “eat this and then you get this,” they will always want the second thing more and think it is cooler. It will be something to covet and to potentially overeat.
Don’t label foods as “good foods” and “bad foods.” You can have conversations and educate children about what food can do for their bodies and how they make them feel, but avoid labels. “Remember when you had that soda and lollipop, and then you felt really jittery or got in trouble at school?” or “Too much ice cream at night makes it hard for you to go to bed, so let’s do some vanilla chia seed protein pudding?” Talk about the benefits of certain foods: “Chia seed pudding helps you sleep well and makes your tummy feel good,” “Orange foods help your eyes,” “Protein helps you be faster and stronger,” “Fish makes your heart strong.”
Take out the shame and guilt! Labeling foods as “bad” makes you and the child feel bad when eating and even when they crave it. It leads to thoughts like “I want a cookie. Cookies are bad. I am bad for wanting a cookie.” And sometimes “bad” foods like a cookie make you feel good and feel more connected to others. “Would you like one of grandma’s chocolate chip cookies? Let’s ask her to show us how to make them.” A lot of the foods that are labeled as bad have holidays and memories associated with them that shouldn’t be tainted.
Make small swaps that, over time, add up. Start with a chicken nugget, purchase a healthier version, then bake it at home with chicken breast and whole grain breadcrumbs, then try air frying, then try chicken breast grilled or boiled. Start with pizza, then go to “decorating” your own whole grain flatbread pizza, or a cauliflower crust pizza. Start with white pasta, then whole grain, chickpea, pea-based, or red lentil pasta for more protein and fiber.
Give concrete options. Ask “Would you like salmon or chicken for dinner?” instead of “What do you want for dinner”. Ask, “Would you like baby carrots or snap peas as your school snack?.” If given unlimited options kids will “shoot” for the moon and ask for something unhealthy or ask for the same familiar thing that they always eat.
Invite your kids into the kitchen. Have them be a part of the meal prep process. I have found that the more involved kids are in making the meals — the sauces, the smoothie bowls, the flatbread pizzas, the sandwiches — the more likely they are to eat them. “Remember how we cut up those cucumbers for the salad and you added the pumpkin seeds? Let’s show Dad the yummy salad that you made.”
Make it fun! What was that taste? How did it smell? Did it crunch? Was it squishy? “Were you expecting the gushing from the blueberry?”
Lastly, hide healthy foods in blends! Veggies can easily be hidden in sauces. Blend up sautéed kale, zucchini, and peppers and add to a tomato sauce. Blend canned chickpeas and steamed cauliflower with Indian butter chicken sauce. Add microwaved broccoli and peas to a mac and cheese sauce and blend. You can add almost anything to a smoothie and make it a yummy smoothie bowl, then add fun toppings like granola, chocolate chips, and berries.
Help your children to become healthy and vital adults. It’s worth the extra effort!