As I’ve mentioned here before, I haven’t always been a healthy eater, and I haven’t always fed my three children nutritious food. I was a very young mother with the best of intentions, but no real knowledge about healthy food.
I believed that when I was buying processed “whole grain” waffles for my kids that I was making a healthy decision for them, even though I slathered them with trans fat margarine and a syrup-like product. We ate fast food quite regularly. I thought diet soda was a healthy choice. It makes me cringe now (I know too much!!)
Slowly I learned more and more about food and the food industry, through eye-opening movies like Food, Inc. and books by Michael Pollan. I changed my diet, changed my lifestyle, and expected my kids to come skipping along happily with me.
Man was I ever wrong.
They kicked and screamed every step of the way. They skipped meals, picked over their food, went hungry on principal, threw tantrums. It was not pretty.
It’s been about 5 years now that I’ve been dealing with this issue, and even though they are nowhere near where I’d like them to be in the eating department, I have tips to share from experience and mistakes. Here is what I have learned:
1. Educate, don’t preach.
I was so shocked at what I learned about processed foods that I would go on rants to them about the food choices we had been making. This immediately put them on the defensive, and they didn’t hear me.
All they knew was that their favorite foods were under fire and by golly, they would not let that happen. I’ve found it to be much more effective to let them ask their own questions and be ready with answers, or share something new I learned that day.
2. Do not, no matter what some bestselling cookbook author tells you, sneak veggies into your child’s food.
This was a big mistake I made early on. I broke their trust and made them feel that vegetables were something so hideous that they had to be hidden, no matter that they liked what they were eating.
While I do think it’s effective to mask the flavor of stronger tasting veggies by mixing them into other foods (like broccoli in meatballs, or spinach in smoothies) – it’s best to be honest with them, then compliment them on their open-mindedness when they try it.
3. Get them in the kitchen.
The best way I’ve found to get my kids to try a new food is to have them help make it. This sparks their curiosity and renders a sense of accomplishment that they want to participate in by eating what they made.
4. Have them brainstorm with a focus on the positive.
When the kids complain about the healthy foods I’ve chosen, I ask them to come up with ideas of foods that they DO enjoy that we can eat. This puts the power back in their hands while they learn what is healthy and what isn’t.
5. Abide by the 80/20 rule.
Teach them balance and moderation. Let them have pizza at friends’ houses or donuts every now and then. If you’re too strict about what they’re eating, eventually they will just rebel. Offer healthy food when you can, and be flexible the other 10-20% of the time. Being overly-controlling with your kids’ food is dangerous territory.
6. Find clean versions of their favorites.
You can make your own version of chicken nuggets, pizza, burgers, and hot dogs with a little creativity and smart shopping. You’re doing well just to find foods with no trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, limited ingredients, and without chemicals or preservatives. That’s a great first start.
7. Introduce changes slowly.
My big giant overhaul of our kitchen and lifestyle did not go over well with the kids. I had to start completely over and make little changes over time. It started with switching to organic meat and produce, then changing the type of bread I buy for sandwiches, then the peanut butter, etc. It took a good long while to phase out the processed stuff and phase in the healthy alternatives completely.
8. Replace the bad with extra fun good.
To cut back on processed foods we slowly began to eat out at restaurants less and less, and replaced those nights with fun things at home. Every Saturday night is now burger night – we grill out and all eat lean grass-fed burgers with clean fixings. Recently we built a fire pit in the back yard and now have Friday night campfire night – all clean foods, cooked over the fire.
9. Lead by example.
Your kids are watching you, how you treat yourself, and the choices you make. Sometimes, the best you can do in certain situations is to just lead by example. Show them the benefits of a healthy lifestyle by living it. Tell them how great you feel. Praise them when they make a healthy choice.
My youngest daughter loves my water bottle, and this Christmas received her own kid-sized one. She asked me this morning if I would stop packing her a juice box at lunch and start packing her bottle with lemon water, just like Mommy.
10. Don’t buy it.
Once you’re ready and have decided to get the processed foods out of their diets, don’t buy it! I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but parents let their kids guilt them into buying the junk food then sulk that the child isn’t eating the healthy stuff.
The rule in our house is that the food here doesn’t have artificial ingredients. My kids get allowances and if they want junk, they can ride their bikes to the store and use their allowance money to get it. They still have the choice, but it isn’t easy enough that they’re buying it all the time.
The ultimate goal is to get them to make healthy choices all on their own. We can say “you’ll eat what I give you” all day long, but as soon as you aren’t looking, they’ll be eating what they want. But if you empower them to make their own good choices, you’ll be setting them up with healthy eating habits for life.
What is your biggest challenge in getting kids to eat healthier foods?