This is the second and final part of my series on helping children eat nutritious food. For the first part in the series, please see “How to Cure Picky Eaters, Part One.”
Getting persnickety eaters to enjoy a variety of nutritious foods can feel like a futile mission. When you consider how many unhealthy influences our kids face—birthday parties, holiday celebrations, school vending machines, cafeterias—establishing healthy eating habits can seem like going into battle with both hands tied behind your back.
But there’s good news. While outside influences may seem overwhelming, children are still most influenced by what you teach in the home. So don’t succumb to their pleas for popular foods. It will leave them starving for nutrition and more likely to face deadly diseases early in life. Make a stand! Raise your kids on the wholesome, nourishing food they need to thrive on. They deserve it.
In my last blog post, I outlined five tried-and-true steps to help you successfully change your pickiest eaters into healthy food lovers. Now read on for five more tips that will help you win the battle once and for all!
1. Always Say Yes to Healthy Snacks
According to the book Disease-Proof Your Child from pediatrician and author Joel Fuhrman, you needn’t control your child’s snacking. As I mentioned in part one, children must learn how to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. Fuhrman advocates that kids be allowed to eat healthy foods whenever they feel inclined (the key here is “healthy”). After all, hunger is also a blood sugar event. If you’re hungry now, you should eat now. Consistently denying your body’s demand for food when you’re hungry can cause serious blood sugar imbalances. Is this any different for your kids? Of course not.
If children arrive home from school and binge on chips and cookies, they won’t be hungry for dinner, and they certainly won’t get any nutrients from such snacks. Their blood sugar will also spike and then crash. A fresh, healthy snack of orange slices or celery and almond butter, however, ensures they’re getting some nutrition now, even if they eat lighter at dinner. Not that they will—kids cannot overeat healthy, whole food the way they can junk food, so they should still be hungry and ready to eat at suppertime.
If I know that dinner will be ready in twenty minutes and a snack of apples and peanut butter will impact my children’s appetite, I will limit what they can eat in those circumstances. But rather than say no when they come to me hungry, I explain dinner is almost ready, and they’re welcome to a small protein or veggie snack in the interim. Organic vegetables are a wonderfully nutritious snack, and they’re not overfilling. They’re also a great way to test whether your kids are truly hungry or just feeling munchy.
2. Watch What You Eat and Say
“More is caught than taught.” So write coauthors Dave Ramsay and his daughter Rachel Cruz in their book Smart Money Smart Kids. Children will always learn more from what they watch you do rather than what they hear you say. So make sure your own eating habits align with the eating habits you want to instill in your children. Abide by the same guidelines you give them. If you come home from work and dig in the pantry for some Milano cookies or tell your spouse to stop putting “disgusting” mushrooms in the casserole, your kids will see and hear your example loud and clear.
From a very young age, my children heard their dad proclaim his disgust for tomatoes. Of course, before any of them tried tomatoes, they had all professed their own abhorrence for them. For children, statements from parents are facts that cannot be changed, so be aware of the messages about food that you pass on to them.
3. Trust Children’s Innate Preference for Healthy Food
We’re all programmed to desire healthy foods. Whole, natural foods are a treasure trove of essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies require to function properly and stave off disease. And our bodies are smart! They ask for the fuel they need, and they turn away from foreign, toxic foods that are fried, refined, and full of chemical additives.
You may be asking why so many people seem to crave junk food and dislike healthier options? Because we can train our bodies to adjust. After consuming a diet of refined, sugary fast food, we often feel painfully ill when we switch to a clean diet. But when we eat junk on a regular basis, we no longer notice any discomfort after enough time has passed. It’s possible to consume so much toxic food that we’re no longer aware of the side effects. That’s because we train our tastes and preferences with our eating habits. Given that the processed foods common in the SAD diet are packed with highly addictive, stimulating sugars and unhealthy fats, it’s actually quite easy to start believing this food is preferable to whole, natural foods. Children don’t really love macaroni and cheese or breaded, flavored white chicken breast—they crave the salt, sugar, and added chemical flavorings that they became addicted to at a young age.
It takes time to change your taste preferences, so be patient. When we decided to eat a cleaner diet as a family, my husband said everything tasted bland. That’s because he was used to all the salt and intense flavors of processed foods. But after a couple weeks, we both started to appreciate the versatility and uniqueness that vegetables, herbs, and spices have to offer. Now our food bursts with flavor. But if we ate fast food, all we would taste is too much salt and hydrogenated, rancid fats.
I also decided to change what snacks I gave to my kids when I realized just how many of those snacks came out of a package. I’d rarely seen my children eat raw vegetables, let alone enjoy them, so I was skeptical the first time I gave them a plate of chopped veggies and hummus. They of course whined for pretzels, but when they realized pretzels weren’t an option, they ate the whole plate. Now snap peas are their favorite snack!
4. Distinguish Food Correctly
Fruit snacks aren’t a “snack” at all—they’re candy. A juice box that proclaims to be “real juice” on the label can have ingredients nearly identical to gummy bears. Goldfish are no different than Pringles, so don’t be fooled by the enticing “whole grain” label (it has very little to do with whole wheat berries). Be intentional about what you feed your kids and for what purpose. When children are hungry for a snack, their bodies need sustainable, nutritious fuel. This tends to grow from soil, and it isn’t formulated in a factory.
When it comes to deceptive food labeling, some of the greatest offenders are desserts that masquerade as breakfast. Packaged blueberry muffins? Just cake’s evil twin, full of sugar infused blue-dyed balls that bear no resemblance to what you’d find picking real blueberries. Pop-Tarts? Just a cookie that takes less time to prepare. Boxed cereal targeted at children? Every single one of them contains so much added sugar you might as well send your kids off with a bag of Oreos. (One brand of kids’ cereal is really just cookies!) Throw in those lucky marshmallows, and is it any wonder our children are confused about the kind of food they should eat? Even “heart healthy” Honey Nut Cheerios nearly max out on the American Heart Association’s daily sugar recommendation for kids.
That’s why you should be intentional about how you start your children’s day. A whole grain breakfast of oatmeal or quinoa is incredibly fast and simple to prepare. Once you load their bowl with naturally sweet berries, crunchy nuts, cinnamon, and a swirl of raw honey, your kids will never miss Cap’N Crunch!
I’ve made great use of Stephanie Selene Anderson’s guide to healthy food shopping, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is! If you could use some help with ideas and sources, I’m confident that it will assist you too in selecting the healthiest snacks and meals for your growing kids.
5. Include and Educate Your Kids
The single most effective way I’ve found to get my kids on board the health boat is to invite them along for the journey! Let your kids peruse healthy recipes with you and choose what looks appetizing to them. A great nutritious cookbook geared toward kids is The Nourishing Traditions Cookbook for Children by Suzanne Gross and Sally Fallon Morrell.
When you go shopping, allow your kids to pick out the food. This provides you with an opportunity to teach them about ingredient lists and nutritional labels. It doesn’t have to feel like a health class—simply start a discussion. “Did you know bell peppers have lots of calcium? That’s really good for your bones as you grow big!” You can make the dialogue more relevant for older kids. If they play sports, explain what foods can help their stamina.
Let your kids cook with you. My girls get ecstatic whenever they see me work in the kitchen. As soon as I set up a station, I hear the screech of three chairs being pushed alongside me. While this does come with some added risk (like an entire bottle of cloves tipping into your batter—not so tasty, I can assure you), the learning opportunity is worth it. For safety tips and ideas on how to cook with littles, check out Adrian Cordiner’s blog post “How to Introduce Kids to the Kitchen.”
Including your children in the meal prep has two great advantages: 1) Kids are more inclined to eat meals they help prepare; 2) Allowing kids to prep an ingredient they don’t like gives you a chance to discuss its flavor and nutritional value. It also encourages them to give it another try.
Take advantage of learning opportunities as they arise. You’ll be surprised how much knowledge even young children will absorb and retain. My girls were asking which foods were healthy and which were not by age three. When we had healthy food, they would inform me that we could eat as much as we wanted. With unhealthy treats, they let me know we could only eat a little so our bodies wouldn’t get sick.
As you educate your kids, be honest with them. There’s no need to hide vegetables or give healthy dishes an unhealthy name in hopes of making them more appealing. This again teaches kids that the unhealthy food is preferable, and the yucky, healthy carrots have to be pureed to sneak into a dish. Go ahead and add pureed carrots or a little liver to your meatloaf! But when your kids say they like it, proudly credit the flavorful vegetables.
Kids are smart. Their bodies know what they need. The question is, do we know what they need? Not always. But we can learn alongside our children while providing the basic, commonsense foods that every body needs. In this way, we support our kids in what they’re already equipped to know and enjoy.
Photos from iStock/sergio_kumer (main image)