Raising Healthy Eaters: How to encourage your kiddos to choose the best foods for their health
Ok mamas, I want you to imagine something. First, I’d like you to think of three of your most favorite foods. Anything you like. Mine would have to revolve around bread, cheese, and chocolate (because coffee and wine aren’t food!).
Now, imagine that there’s a restaurant that’s going to cook for you every day for free. You know the chef is going to cook your three favorite meals because you’ve eaten them there before, and they tasted amazing. The best news is that these meals will have no impact on your weight or your health. In this magical restaurant, none of that matters. You can forget all you know about nutrients, calories, sugar, fat, everything!
But, something starts to happen. You order your favorite meal one day, and you get something you’ve never seen before. It looks kind of strange. You touch it and it feels weird. It stinks! What is it?! You tell the chef that you didn’t order it, and that you don’t want it. The chef tells you that you have to eat it. They don’t even tell you what it is, and they start trying to put it in your mouth. You refuse and they get angry.
This goes on every day. You start to dread meal times. They’re not fun, and you get bored and lonely. Each day there’s something different.
This is what some mealtimes would look like from a child’s perspective.
If we could eat our favorite foods without any knowledge of what our body needs to be healthy, we would choose them almost every time, right? That’s what it’s like for kids. They have no understanding of nutrition; they just know what they enjoy eating.
So, if we try to see food through a child’s eyes, we can use a few strategies that will help to encourage them to make healthy food choices.
There doesn’t need to be reward charts, hiding vegetables, disguising meat, and there’s no need for bribery or time outs. Here are 10 ways you can help your kids to make healthy food choices.
It’s all about laying the foundations.
Introducing solids is the ideal time to expose your child to a huge variety of tastes, textures, and colours. There’s no need to keep food bland. I tend to start babies off with the more bitter vegetables, and skip the tasteless baby rice. Even fruit gets delayed for a while so that their developing palates are more accustomed to vegetables long before sugar and carbohydrates.
Keep the fruit separate.
Don’t despair if you’ve already started solids, and they’re living on fruit and carbs. While fruit is healthy, they only need about two servings per day. Keeping the fruit separate to their main meals will encourage them to try other proteins and vegetables. I know if someone gave me a plate of spinach and strawberries, I’d probably fill up on the fruit first. Just like bread at a restaurant – why DO they give us bread while we wait, anyway?
Only keep healthy food in the house.
It might seem obvious, but only stocking the fridge and pantry with food that you’d like them to eat is the key. For me, if there’s chocolate somewhere in the house, it will be calling me until I give in. Only having things like fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, eggs, nuts, seeds, tins of tuna and beans will encourage everyone only to eat whole, nutritious food. If they’re hungry and that’s all there is, one day they’re bound to hopefully try something new!
Be the role model.
We can’t expect our kids to make healthy food choices if they don’t see us eating the same food. They’re clever, and they like to do what they see us do. If there are foods that you don’t particularly like, you might need to learn to like them. Find different ways of cooking them, and look for new recipes to try together.
We don’t always want to eat when the kids do, which is totally fine, but at least sitting with them will encourage them to stay at the table. Making it a social activity, not just one about getting food into them takes the pressure off and makes it fun. So, sit with them, chat about their day – they’ll love the attention, and mealtimes will be something they’ll look forward to.
Cut back on the snacks.
Not giving kids food too close to mealtimes will ensure they have a good appetite. If my son gets hungry before dinner, I only offer him something like carrot and cucumber sticks. Kids can actually go a few hours without food if they fill their tummies with nutrient dense meals.
Make food fun.
I’m not talking about making unicorns out of bread and lettuce, or funny faces out of every meal. No one has time for that! Rather, think about different ways you could serve it, like putting a variety of things into a muffin tray, or serving raw vegetables with dips, or cooked meat and veggies on skewers with dipping sauces. Don’t forget the DIY meals like tacos and burgers.
The timing makes a difference.
If your toddler still has an afternoon nap, and they’re starting to fall into an exhausted heap at midday, then it’s not the best time to serve lunch. Try having it much earlier. The same goes for dinner. Tired kids will be pretty reluctant to try new foods.
Get them involved
Grocery shopping with the kids can be hell on earth, which is why I do mine online, but on the weekends, I like to take the kids to the local farmer’s market just to get a few items. It’s a great opportunity to get a conversation about food going, and to see and smell everything. Then, my baby gets to watch me in the kitchen while I prepare a meal, and my pre-schooler likes to help.
No Plan B.
If your child knows that they’ll get something like they like, such as a cheese sandwich, if they don’t eat their dinner, then what do you think they’ll do? We obviously don’t want our kids to go to bed starving, but we don’t want them thinking there will always be something they’d prefer if they don’t eat what we serve them.
But, most of all, eating should be a pleasure! So, try to remain calm while your child is learning to eat and to make healthy choices. We wouldn’t get impatient with them while they’re learning to walk or read, and eating is no different. Make mealtimes an enjoyable activity, slow it down, and remember to smile.
And remember to see it through their eyes.