As a mom, I have control over most of the food that enters our home –at least until my sons get jobs and driver’s licenses. It’s hard enough to teach ourselves to eat healthy, but inspiring our families to adopt our habits can seem like an impossible task.
The obvious choice is to start when your children are young, so that healthy food is a part of their daily experience. That’s wonderful, but what about those of us who entered the healthy eating game later in life? Is it too late? Or, what about parents who have picky eaters? This is a real struggle with my own family. I’m always trying to reign in the sugar maniacs while cajoling the picky eaters. Over the years I have found a few things to be helpful:
It takes time, but be persistent. Chances are you didn’t arrive at a healthy lifestyle overnight, so be patient with your family. Continue to set an example –educate yourself on the “what and why” of healthy eating. Children are curious; they’ll ask questions about what you are eating. It helps to tell them why your food choice is healthy, and to offer them a taste. They may pass, but remember that we are rarely stagnate in anything; we can go forward or backward. Your children’s tastes and preferences will change, and we as parents can choose to gradually nudge them in the right direction. In our house, it is a challenge to get our kids to eat vegetables. If this sounds familiar, I suggest starting with one meal a day, putting a few vegetables on their plates. Eventually you can get away with offering it for snacks and other meals. If they don’t like something, try serving it seasoned or prepared in a different way the next time.
Keep an on-going dialogue about the importance of quality nutrition and what sugar, for example, does to the body. Since nutrition is one passion of mine, I talk about it often. But you don’t have to be an expert to educate your children about healthy choices. Children need lots of repetitions in order to master a concept, so expect to sound like a broken record. Eventually it does sink in! Recently I was in a store with my youngest son (age 6); he pointed out a box of Pop Tarts and loudly declared, “This is fake food, people!” While I was slightly embarrassed, I was proud to see that he was retaining what I was teaching him. If you have an intellectual and/or slightly older kiddo, consider watching some documentaries about nutrition. We watched That Sugar Film with my 11-year old son and it was very compelling. (Two great ones for adults are: Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead and Hungry for Change).
Identify the most challenging meals/foods and gradually switch out the favorite unhealthy foods…and explain why you are making the switch. For example, instead of potato chips, buy a mandolin slicer and slice your own potatoes and bake in the oven. For us, the challenging meal is snacks, so I set out a bowl of fruit, apples, bananas, cuties, pears, and let the kids know that something from this bowl is the first stop when wanting a snack. Other great snack options are homemade granola bars and trail mix, mozzarella cheese sticks, hormone and nitrate free deli meat, air-popped popcorn, and Greek yogurt with berries or granola.
Tap into each child’s personality. This is probably the most effective tool in a parent’s arsenal for any behavior change. By focusing on what motivates your child, you can channel their personality in order to positively influence them. One of my boys sees everything in black and white (he has autism); I can give him a choice between two healthy foods and he will choose one because that is what he was asked to do. I need to approach my second son intellectually (he’s a thinker): “This is excellent for your immune system, and I know how much you don’t like to get sick.” With my third, spitfire-of-a-son (Lord have mercy!), we have to make it all about competition and/or reverse psychology, “Whatever you do, don’t eat all of your salad like your brother just did.” And he’ll immediately fill his face with salad…every time, without fail!
If it isn’t in your house, it can’t be eaten. Sometimes I’ve had to take a firm stance on not buying any packaged or favorite unhealthy foods. The kids freak out a bit, but they eventually get used to having only real food to choose from. Confession: I use this trick on myself as well.
Ok, Better, and Best. This is a great concept for teaching kids about the progression of healthy choices. For example, an “ok” choice might be cereal that is low sugar or a packaged granola bar (not a lot of nutrients there), while a “better” choice would be a homemade, whole food granola bar, and a “best” choice would be a real piece of fruit. In our house, we try to make the better and best choices more frequently than the “ok” choices. But hey, we aren’t perfect!
Relax. There are no “Healthiest Kids on Earth” awards being given out anytime soon. Yes, their health is very important, but it isn’t worth fighting over every morsel of food that goes into their mouths. It’s ok to allow the occasional indulgence. It’s ok to be honest about our own struggles with craving unhealthy foods versus knowing that they aren’t good for us. This helps kids to interpret their own cravings with a healthier frame of reference instead of thinking that they are “bad” or “wrong” for wanting certain foods. We can’t be perfect, but we can be better.
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Spiritually and nutritionally, this concept applies.
Please share your tips below! I’d love to hear what works for your family!