When given a choice, most kids will pick junk food over healthy food. However, kids are not born knowing the difference of taste of healthy food compared to the taste of junk food. As parents, we condition our children through our own words and actions.
“If you’re good, you can have a cookie…” “Ooooh, that cake is so good…”
“When we go to the park, I will buy you ice cream,” or the never-ending battle of the candy “grab-and-whine” when in the checkout of virtually any store.
We have glorified sugar-laden and non-nutritional foods as the celebration for virtually all occasions: holidays, pre-school snacks, bribes and rewards. Yet those foods are known to be bad for our health and more so, for our kids. Why are we rewarding our children with something that contributes to childhood obesity, childhood diabetes, high blood pressure, spikes in insulin, crashes in energy, and the list goes on and on. I’m not saying skip the birthday cake; but when families learn how to bring healthy food choices into everyday living, it helps to make the treats much more meaningful and less expected as part of meal plan.
Helping your child understand healthy food choices and eating habits will bring benefits throughout childhood and into their teen and adult years. To begin, it is as simple as adopting some very easy-to-do mealtime routines:
- Focus on the food and each other. Making mealtime an opportunity to talk, share and learn from the parent allows the child to become a captive audience. When kids see the parent eating healthy food, they will adopt your attitude toward food and learn to stay focused on the food and conversation, a skill that will help them develop social behaviors as they move through life.
- Disable the cable…and laptop…and TV… and devices. This is part of the focus and disconnection from distractions that also can lead to overeating, rushing meals or forgetting to chew and savor foods. Research has shown that kids who eat in front of the TV will either overeat or under-eat, neither of which is healthy.
- Offer healthy food, nutritious snacks and meaningful beverages as choices. A few easy food choices that are kid-friendly include apple slices with peanut or almond butter, fresh fruits with a low sugar yogurt dip, sweet potato wedges or slices dusted with olive oil to (a great way to replace potato chips or crunchy snacks), air popped popcorn, a few cubes of cheese or rice puffed cereals. It is easy to get inventive, and, the fresher the food, the less preparation it will need. And, keeping healthy food snacks in containers they can reach and carry is a plus. [Read: 5 Ways to Keep Baby Food BPA-free]
- Let your child choose what and how much healthy food they want to eat. Unlike adults, kids will eat when they are hungry and stop when they are satisfied. So, healthy food choices will provide them with the calorie and nutrient rich foods that nourish the body, help build bones, provide long lasting fuel and support all of the body’s systems, all the while showing what a healthy food choice can be.
- Be patient with your child. Remember, children’s tastes are developing. What they like today may not be the same in a few months. Introduce new foods with a “no thank you” bite; we would suggest our children take at least two bites of a new food and if they absolutely despised the flavor, they could say “no thank you.” Typically, they find they like the food. We also did a “eat the number for your age” bites.. if they were 3, they’d have to try 3 bites, 4 years old, 4 bites and so on.
- Teach children why, in simple kid-friendly terms, that a particular junk or fast food is not the best choice. When our daughter wanted more than her fair share of chocolate, we would tell her that it will bother her tummy and she would get the “poops”. Kids do not understand the term “empty calories”, but they do understand poop.
When the “Mommy, pleeeeease” in the grocery store aisle began, I would reinforce the why and offer a solution. “I know that plate of fries looks yummy on TV, but that type of food isn’t the healthiest for you. We can make some of our own fries together! Interestingly, it worked.
If it’s the freebie toy or some type of trinket offer that has your child begging, know that some fast food places may allow you to purchase the toy for a small charge without the meal.
Teaching children healthy food choices starts young. It is easier to condition a child than to reteach or re-learn anything, especially foods. Have you or someone you know made the road to eating healthy food a family affair? We would love to hear from you and possibly feature you in an upcoming blog.
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