This year, I’ve been working on a series about childhood obesity and healthy family food and exercise habits. As I’ve noted previously, when it comes to food habits, it’s extremely hard to change established food habits in your older kids. It’s much more simple to raise kids who eat right from the start.
Later we will look at solutions for families with older kids who want to make healthy food changes, but if you’re expecting a baby or have young children in your home, now, not later, is the best time to get your kids on board with healthy eating habits.
I’m very lucky or super awesome – take your pick
In spite of being super picky, my son is a healthy eater. He eats correct portion sizes, loves fruits and veggies and for a picky eater, balances his meals fairly well. I may be incredibly lucky or I could be way awesome, it’s hard to tell. Still, I’ve seen a lot of unhealthy kid eaters too, and often, if you take the time to look, these unhealthy habits seems to lead back to the parents habits.
With the above in mind, I’m fairly comfortable saying that Cedar’s food habits are at least somewhat the product of my parenting methods. Research agrees that parents, not other external issues, have the most influence when it comes to kids eating habits.
While I’m nowhere near a perfect parent, I am very careful about food issues. I was raised in a home where we did eat fairly healthy, when my mom decided to cook, but everyone was judged by their looks and how thin they were. Not cool. I didn’t want that for my own child. But, I didn’t want to ignore food issues either.
I’m not a certified nutrition expert
I went to college for nursing, thus taking a slew of nutrition courses, so I have a pretty good grasp on what constitutes healthy eating, calorie counting and other science-based nutritional topics. However, as you’re aware, kids buck scientific research again and again. What works for one parent, is not guaranteed to work for another. Basically, I’m not claiming to be some genius parent. Still, since my son is a decent eater, I can tell you what I did to raise a healthy eater and hopefully some of these methods will work for you.
- Encourage healthy lifestyle habits with the bare minimum
- 10 Basic Principles for Greener and Healthier Family Meals
Above and beyond the bare minimum (shown above) I’ve also tried a variety of other techniques that have helped shape healthy eating skills in my child.
I breastfeed exclusively for six months and non-exclusively for a year+
It’s well established that breastfed babies not only have a lower risk of obesity but they maintain healthier weights on average for their entire life than formula fed babies. Breastfed babies also are partial to the foods their mother eats while breastfeeding. I ate a ton of fruits and veggies while breastfeeding, thus hopefully ensuring that Cedar would also like fruits and veggies. Additionally, breastfed babies have been shown to regulate their own eating habits better than kids who were formula fed. Lastly, research shows that mothers who breastfeed may be more in-tune with their child’s real hunger cues for the long haul than mothers who formula feed.
It’s recommended that babies be breastfed exclusively for 6 months, yet at six months, only 13% of babies are exclusively breastfeed in America. I blame society, not mothers. We don’t support breastfeeding mothers in this country nearly enough and we come down on mothers who feed in public. It can be tough, but for the best start for your baby, you should try to find a support system that will allow you to breastfeed successfully. Visit La Leche League or Breastfeeding.com to learn about supports that can help.
I try to eat healthy myself
I’ve met many parents who complain that their kid’s eating habits suck, yet one look at the parent’s plate, and it’s easy to see why. Well-meaning parents often serve their kids plates of healthy food, but if your plate looks different, it won’t matter. I see kids served veggies while parents refuse the same veggies or kids served a healthy breast of chicken while a parent has something deep-fried. Kids do what you do, not what you say to do. You influence your child more than anyone, so if you’re eating healthy, your child will mimic you.
I never force foods
I always ask Cedar to try new foods, but I never force him to eat anything. I’m a picky eater too, so I get his finicky deal. I don’t want food forced on me, thus I don’t force food on my son or guilt trip him into eating.
I advocate child choice when it comes to food
I rarely say no when it comes to food. I say no to many non-organics, GMOs and other icky food packed with chemicals or fake colors, but that’s another issue. In general, if it’s in the house, Cedar is allowed to have it. Forcing food choices along with strict food schedules is a huge mistake as it tends to result in kids who don’t listen to their own stomachs or hunger / nutritional needs. From toddler-hood on I made sure to keep a wide selection of food in the house (grains, veggies, dairy, even sweets) and Cedar was allowed to choose what he wanted, when he wanted it.
You might think this results in a kid who asks for candy for breakfast, simply because he can, but the opposite is true. Allowing Cedar to make his own food choices has taught him to self-regulate. Although I wouldn’t say, “No, you can’t have candy right before dinner” or “No you can’t have pie for breakfast” he almost never asks for crazy stuff like that. Cedar picks healthy meals and snacks 90% of the time.
In fact, here’s a good example of what happens when you deny kids food choices. Since Cedar was little, he’s had his own snack drawers – one in the fridge and one in the pantry. I keep both stocked with stuff like carrots, apples, muffins, crackers, yogurt, and some sweets in case he feels like it. The sweets rarely need replacing because he’s unlikely to choose them over a different snack. Now, when he’s had friends over, they’re welcome to snacks too and usually they head right for the sweets, saying things like, “Your mom just leaves candy and cookies out for you?!” Once, a little friend of Cedar’s came over – her parents are the type who almost never allow candy or sweets. She ate every single sweet item in Cedar’s drawer. Cedar doesn’t ever do that, and I think it’s because he’s free to choose.
Candy and other sweets don’t reside in some magical, wonderful secret world to my son, they’re simply there, just like the veggies and crackers.
Zero clean plate club
You don’t have to clean your plate at my house and yes, you can still have dessert if you so choose.
I don’t make major distinctions between ‘bad’ food and ‘good’ food
Food is food is food around here. Because we discuss food choices, my son understands that massive salt and sugar is not healthy and that everyone needs balance in their life, but I’ve never sorted foods into weird groups like, veggies are a “good” food and candy is a “bad” food. Using terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ around kids may confuse them into feeling guilty about foods they choose or it may encourage them to sneak “bad” off-limit food.
I don’t praise or punish when it comes to food
I’ve never praised Cedar for eating ‘healthy foods’ such as veggies. Likewise, I never punish or condemn him for choosing ‘unhealthy foods’ such as candy. We talk about the health benefits of many foods, so Cedar understands that his food choices do matter, but he never gets the, “What a good boy, you ate your veggies!” speech. He’s not a dog for crying out loud and he shouldn’t feel super accomplished for eating broccoli or lame for eating cake.
I don’t do kid meals
As a baby and toddler, my son was served whatever his dad and I were eating. I didn’t want to set myself up to cook two meals a night, and also cooking for everyone vs. just us or just my kid, encouraged me to cook healthier fare. Now, as noted, I have a picky eater. If I make stir-fry or anything with sauce or some sorts of fish, Cedar bulks and won’t eat. Still, he’s always served a little of everything.
My general food rule is that he should try food, but he isn’t forced to do so. He doesn’t have to eat, but he does need to sit and be with us at dinner time. Afterwards, if he’s still hungry, fine, but as a 11-year-old, he can make himself an alternative dinner, so long as it’s semi decent – i.e. cereal, fruit, veggies or soup.
Cedar gets to shop and cook (although he doesn’t want to)
When grocery shopping, I’ve always allowed Cedar to choose new produce or other items without fear that his choice might backfire. For example, he wanted to try a starfruit. We bought it, took it home, and tried it. Cedar didn’t like it. However, I didn’t say, “How dumb” or “Well, now you have to eat it!” He tried it, which for a picky eater is a big deal, whether or not he liked it. Allowing your kids to choose new foods at the store is one way to help them stay in charge of their own diet.
I also advocate kids in the kitchen. Sadly, my child is anti-cooking. It’s just not something he loves to do. Still, most kids do love to get messy in the kitchen, and letting them do so offers the perfect opportunity to discuss food and teach your child about healthy cooking. If your kids is like mine (not interested in cooking) keep asking. Once in a while Cedar does decide to participate and it’s always fun and useful.
I don’t dress up foods with salt, sugar or butter
My mom was a questionable parent, but one smart thing she did was serve food that wasn’t dressed up with salt, sweets or excessive toppings. That habit stuck with me. I don’t put butter on veggies all the time or added salt. I don’t sprinkle sugar on cereal or fruit and I use butter in very limited amounts. Because of this, Cedar has learned that different foods have their own flavors naturally and you don’t always have to reach for sugar, salt or butter to make the food edible.
Teaching your kids to enjoy naked food is a big deal. I’ve met kids who put sugar on everything, or won’t eat. Not only does sugar hide actual food flavor but for every tablespoon of sugar you add to foods, that’s 45 calories. As for salt, well, I actually met a guy who sprinkles salt on salted tortilla chips! Excess sodium causes all sorts of health problems and in fact, a major report shows that if all Canadians cut their sodium intake by half, thousands of lives could be saved. Americans are just as crazy for salt.
We discuss organics
Kids don’t always understand why we should choose organic vs. conventional foods. I’ve been discussing organics with my son forever at this point and at age 11, Cedar has totally caught on. He’s very organic conscious at this point and will go out of his way to search out organics. Now, does it always pay off? Nope, he’s mad that there are no organic Skittles; he’s not so mad that he won’t eat the conventional ones though. However, he will ask for organic apples and milk.
To discuss organic choices with a younger child, my best advice is to keep it simple. Stay away from pesticides until your child is a little older – pesticides, which you can’t see, are a tad abstract to a child. Say something like, “Organic means healthier for your body” or “Organic foods are a smart choice for the planet, like turning off the lights.” These are things that worked with my son when he was young. Now I do explain terms like chemicals and pesticides in more detail but I waited until I thought he could grasp that concept.
How do you encourage healthy eating habits in your kids?