Teaching your kids about healthy eating is hard. Here are my ideas for healthy eating habits for kids that I'm teaching my boys.
Being a parent is the toughest job on the planet. Everyone tells you this when you are planning a family or pregnant, but you really have no freaking idea until you get into the tough moments of life where you are suppose to have the answers. And you don't. In fact, I feel like I rarely have the answer.
When it comes to food and healthy eating, I often feel like I'm fumbling along here too. I have this fear of totally screwing up my kids and turning them off to healthy foods. I obviously care a lot about what they eat, so it makes it hard for me to stay chill. So often my controlling dietitian alter-ego wants to come out and snatch things away from kids all while cursing the name of junk food.
I honestly cannot tell you that I have mastered this side of me or that I have the answers that will fix all your healhty eating woes. But after 5 years of parenting (which by no means qualifies me as an expert), I think I've found 7 healthy habits I hope to instill in my kids, at least for now. My hope is that by sharing these with you, maybe you will find something that resonates with you, gives you something practical to grasp on to, or hopefully position your children to choose healthy living one day.
From what I'm told, there's a good chance I will not see these principles embraced by my children until they are adults. This makes it even more hard because you have no idea if what you are doing is working. But I have faith. I believe these little lessons can be sown in into their hearts and minds and will one day flourish as principles in their lives.
I've learned through my experience and training in behavior change that what we say to ourselves is what we believe. I'm therefore including some simple phrases you can use to paint a more positive picture of healthy eating in your family. They're not necessarily magic, but I hope they help.
So here we go..
- We eat fruits and vegetables all the time. This is obviously the basis of a healthy diet but it can't just be talked about; it must be demonstrated. I include a fruit and/or veggie at almost every eating episode we have during the day. Smoothies at breakfast , squeezie fruit packs as snacks, usually a fruit and veg at lunch, something at dinner, and even when we entertain. From time to time a child will ask me about why we are having more of a fruit or veg when we already had it today. I like simply responding with: "We eat fruits and veggies all the time. Our family loves them."
- Fun foods are great but we don't eat them all the time. I often have conversations with my boys about their favorite treats. Cupcakes, cookies and chocolate milk are regular conversation starters with them. I like to always affirm that they are wonderful foods, and I especially love enjoying them together. But then I remind them (as neutral sounding as I can) that these aren't foods we eat all the time because that's not healthy for us. I also like to talk about options they could make around treats such as: would you rather choose a chocolate milk now or a cookie later. In those conversations, I don't even have to clearly say "you can only have one." Rather I am teaching them the value of choices in their eating. In general, I will say something like "I really love cookies too, but we don't eat them all the time."
- Be an adventurous eater. This is not my original idea. I honestly can't remember where I learned this phrase but it stuck with me. I don't want to quantify my kids as good or bad eaters based on the quantity of food or the type of food they eat. I just don't think that's positive. No matter what my child eats or doesn't eat, they will always be "good" to me. So instead I encourage them to be adventurous and try new things. We have a one bite rule for meals where they just have to taste it. If that turns into a drawn out fight, I drop it. It's not worth ruining a good family meal over.
- Honor your appetite and be mindful. Now this one is tricky with little kids because this is an abstract topic. How I translate this is that when my son tells me he is not hungry anymore, I say OK. To be completely honest, I STILL struggle with this. Sometimes I do encourage him to eat a little more if he seriously only took one bite and we just played outside for an hour. I mean, come on kid!! But I also take some comfort in learning that other moms report that their kids are often not big eaters at dinner. (Are we all shaking our heads yes??) So that tells me that my child is not trying to pull a fast one on me EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. Plus, research has shown that children are born with an innate sense of hunger and satiety, but their environment growing up can teach them to override that. So if my son says he is no longer hunger, I believe him. Sometimes my oldest will say, "Mommy, I am not hungry for your dinner. I am only hungry for cookies." SCREEEEECCCCHHHHH! What's that about now?! After I put out the fumes coming out of my ears, I try to calmly talk about how we don't just eat cookies for our meals because that doesn't nourish our bodies (or something along those lines). This also refers to #2 above. If my son continues to insist on only being hungry for cookies, I do NOT just give him cookies. Come on! I will then discuss with him that the decision he has is to eat his dinner or not eat his dinner. Cookies will not be served.
- You don't like it now but you may one day. I recently had a discussion with a parent who told me their children did not like any fruit. None. It was a point of contention in the family and I could tell it had received a lot of energy from the parents to help her, unsuccessfully. We brainstormed for a little bit on strategies and I encouraged them to speak what they want to be true for their child. Instead of always stating she didn't like fruit, open the door of opportunity by saying "one day you might like fruit." I've started doing this with my boys too. When they insistently tell me they do not like this or that being served, I reply "well, one day you might like it and I hope you that do."
- Drink lots of water. This one has been an unintentional lesson I've passed down to my boys, which really proves to me the power of example. I carry a water bottle with me everywhere I go. I bought the boys (these) water bottles too because it just seemed natural. Now, after several years of doing this, the boys know to fill up their bottles with water before we leave the house. As they have gotten older, other beverages have come into their realm of experience. They will ask for juice, milk,or whatever else they may want. I use this as a time to share that we mostly drink water in our family because it's the best for our bodies. If they want a drink that's truly a treat, I then move to the language in #2 above. I do give my kids milk and 100% juice, especially if it's been really hot and they need to drink more fluids. In general though, I want them to mostly rely on water. I feel strongly about avoiding soda so I am trying to postpone that as long as I possibly can. I know one day they will try it and probably like it. And when that day comes, I'll use some of #2 above and probably have to figure out a new strategy too.
- Share and enjoy food with others. This habits speaks to beliefs that are at the core of my personal food philosophy. I believe food is made for sharing so we often share bites of whatever we are eating. Sometimes food is very valuable to someone, like daddy's favorite dish or my favorite treat, so we are less inclined to share. But more often then not, even if I don't want to, I try to share with my boys and encourage them to do the same. I hope they will always enjoy sharing a bite, meal or more with someone who wants to be adventurous and taste something new or truly needs nourishment. Lastly, as often as we can, we will eat together and invite others to join us. The dining table is such a beautiful picture of the kingdom of God. It's a place where people of all walks of life can feel equal and have value. We try to invite people over regularly to share meals and as the boys get older, I want to be more involved in serving meals to those in need.
I honestly feel a little exposed and vulnerable sharing these eating habits with you. They are pretty personal, you know? But, I think it's important to get us all talking about what exactly we are teaching our kids about healthy eating and food. Sometimes things comes out of us that we just learned growing up, but they aren't exactly the best strategies if we really think them though. I am definitely guilty of this.
All in all, I just encourage you to think about what healthy eating habits you would like to pass down to your kids. And PLEASE know that no one, NO ONE, will ever teach or demonstrate them perfectly. The other difficult thing about being a parent is that once you become one, you unfortunately don't become perfect either. So, we will all mess up. Probably a lot. And that is ok. Keep talking it out and practice what's important to you.
Best wishes my friends!
For the love of family, food and sharing it together,