Well, this is news to me.
I think if you eat a great diet and give your kids what you eat, you are creating a familiarity with tasty and healthy foods. Cooking and eating good food is a party in our house, literally. The atmosphere we create around food fosters a love for healthy foods, so I know that it is possible to get kids to love good foods.
Introduce new and varied flavors early in a child’s life.
From the moment we introduced Anjolie to food, we exposed her to everything from whole grains to fish and legumes. She became familiar with the flavors and appearance of real, whole, healthy foods and actually grew a taste preference for them. So I do believe kids do what we show and teach them. I am not one that masks or disguises healthy foods to look like something that would appeal to a kid. I prefer the idea of preparing the food as it is in its natural state and learning to eat it that way. For example, I have never cut my daughter’s food into shapes or molded her veggies to look like stars, or even salted her food. Why? I want my daughter to taste her food and appreciate those natural flavors in order to choose nutritious foods over others. As a result, she naturally chooses a slice of whole grain bread over a piece of refined bread because overall that is what she was exposed to from a young age.
Make healthy foods/meals enjoyable.
Show and express excitement about how good a food tastes. Show the same excitement over whole grain bread that you would show over a piece of cake. Talk about how delicious and tasty a good food is. Some argue not to talk about a food being nutritious, but I always do. For example, I tell Anjolie what foods may make her feel strong, or grow tall, or help her play.
Give them choices.
Let them choose between two healthy picks. For instance, give them the choice between an apple and pear for a snack to make them part of the decision so they are less likely to fight you on it.
Discuss how the food is grown and where it comes from. This talk may create an appreciation for food that you didn’t expect.
Involve them in the meal preparation.
This can include grocery shopping, deciding what to eat, actual cooking preparation, and even setting the table and cleaning up.
Eat meals with your children.
Nothing is more valuable than family time and setting the example to your children about eating meals at the table together to create healthy habits.
Don’t make eating stressful.
The more attention you put on it, the worse the perception or attitude the kids may have about a certain food. They may even grow to dread mealtime altogether and make sitting at the table a nightmare for the whole family.
Don’t give up.
Keep buying, preparing, and serving healthy meals—and eventually they will eat them. Keep putting healthy foods and new foods on their plate. It may get frustrating and repetitive, but after a few times, they will eventually try it if it is on their plate.
Keep things positive.
Use positive talk. Instead of saying, “See that food wasn’t so bad,” steer away from creating an unhealthy connotation about the food or making the kids feel bad about themselves and their choice in refusing the food. Instead, opt for something like: “Did you like that?” or “Which food did you like the most?” or “Which one do you want to try next time?”
Don’t push or coax to eat.
Allow kids to follow their hunger and fullness cues and not ignore what their body is telling them. Try to stay away from the “clean your plate” mentality or even over-restriction of calories. I found that as infants and toddlers, kids are really good at regulating energy intake, and there is a tendency for environmental cues to diminish natural hunger-driven eating behaviors. So trust your kids.
Do not use food as a reward.
So if your child manages to eat a serving of broccoli without throwing a fit at the dinner table, do not be tempted to offer a cookie as a reward. Instead provide positive reinforcement and reward them with the gift of your time and attention.
Keep other caregivers in the loop.
I have found this to be a delicate subject at times, but it is a necessary discussion. When your child is sometimes in the care of others, that means eating under their supervision as well. If Grandma says, “I hate beans, how can you eat that,” she may be innocently influencing her grandchildren to stop eating their healthy vegetables. If you don’t like what a caregiver is providing food-wise, then pack up food yourself, send it with your child, and set the expectation of what they can eat. No, you do not want to be the food police, but if you feel something needs adjusting, try to address it as best as you can in order to form healthy behaviors in situations when you are not present.
Don’t give up!
Of course, sometimes the system breaks down. Last night, Anjolie threw a tantrum over putting jelly beans in her Greek yogurt bedtime snack. I must confess, I was too tired and gave in, but I am not giving up and neither should you! The reason we have a system is so these breakdowns are few and far between.
For more information on nutrition for kids and creating happy, healthy eaters, check out my blog this month on Breadsense.com.
Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information