With marketers tempting kids with the latest and greatest TV commercials and food packaging for junk food, it is becoming more and more difficult to get kids engaged in healthy eating. The good news is that despite our challenging environment there are some simple things you can do at home and with kids to help increase their interest in healthy foods. Parents and caregivers at home are the single most important influencers of healthy eating and lifelong eating habits. As a parent or caregiver if you haven’t made the greatest choices over the years, keep in mind it is never too late to learn and implement healthier choices and be the role model that you want to be.
Here are some ways to spark some interest in healthy eating at home with your family:
1. Increase exposure
Help kids cut out pictures of a variety of foods and make a collage of the food groups and help them understand why each food group is important for health. For great teaching ideas check out the resources provided by Alberta Health services for teachers and educators here: http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/2925.asp. Look for interactive games and download apps on your smartphones that are about nutrition, cooking and keeping healthy. Get out books from the library about healthy eating, the human body and healthy living. Perhaps even more important is find kids cookbooks or go to the cookbook section of the library and encourage kids to find pictures of things you could make together. Take kids to the farmers market or you-pick-farms to teach them about how food grows, name new foods and choose fresh foods to come home and cook. If you don’t know how to cook them, do an Internet search or find a you tube video of “how to cook ______” to learn along side your child. Let them whisk the scrambled eggs, stir the pancake batter, mix up the muffins and when age appropriate slice the veggies for the stir-fry.
2. Eat meals together
With so many extracurricular activities happening over the dinner hour it is becoming more difficult for families to eat together. Protect this time as much as possible since research shows families that eat together have better nutrient intakes, less risk of obesity, less risk of eating disorders and have kids that are better students. Eating together is one of the few times that families get to connect together and check-in about challenges. Research also shows that families that eat together also have kids that are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. If you currently eat few meals together start with Sunday dinner and grow from there. Also consider eating breakfast together as another way to connect and model good eating habits.
3. Parents choose what to eat, kids decide how much
I am an advocate of Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding which emphasizes parents choose what to eat, kids decide how much. Our kids need to grow up with structure and the security that food will be offered at regular times and that sometimes they will get their favorites and sometimes they will get not-so-favorites. We want to exposure our kids to a large variety of healthy “grow foods.” Keep in mind it can take at least 15-20 times for a new food to be accepted. The best approach to getting picky eaters to try new things is to make mealtimes non-stressful and to eat together and offer a good variety of healthy meals. In time kids will surprise you. Instead of saying “just try one bite” instead try the expression “you can try one bite and if you don’t like it you can politely spit it out.” Offer a napkin or a “no thank you” bowl at the table if they tried them and didn’t want to swallow them. This might sound strange but kids are more willing to try things if they know they have an out. Kids decide how much to eat and if they are going to eat anything at all. Respect your child’s request to ask for more food and also to leave food on the plate, as we want them to listen to their hunger cues and respect them. Be clear that this is the meal that is available and that another snack or meal is not going to be offered for a few hours.
4. Balancing a mix of “grow foods” and “fun foods”
At each meal provide three things for balance (grains/starches, vegetables and/or fruit and a source of protein). At snacks offer one or two of these items and space them out with enough time that they will be hungry for the upcoming meal.
Look at healthier ways to provide treats such as homemade frozen yogurt popsicles, oatmeal date squares, oatmeal raisin cookies and apple crisp. Try making nachos on Friday night for supper with cheese, meat/beans, fresh made salsa and guacamole. Make air popped popcorn with butter and a pinch of salt rather than packaged microwaved style popcorn full of preservatives.
It is also important to teach them how to manage “fun foods” such as sweets and savory foods chosen more for taste, celebration and social fun. This means teaching embracing a philosophy that all foods can fit. If you don’t include any fun foods at home your child may eat a dozen cookies at a friends house rather than a couple since basic psychology suggests we all want what we can’t have. The healthiest, most flexible eaters lifelong have exposure to a wide variety of all foods.