Healthy food has been important to me for a long time. I loved pregnancy and breastfeeding, and because I’ve always been a “good eater,” feeding a baby, inside or outside, just meant I could eat more. But when it was time to feed my first child solid food, I sooner would have known how to feed a puppy. I was determined to start her off right, so I dove into books, articles, and mommy blogs to find out what works.
My oldest is nine now, and my second is five, and for the most part, they are good eaters. The baby stage was the foundation for good habits, and all that time with the books and blogs, the steamer and food processor, cutting veggies into finger food and insisting on whole grains…it has paid off, but the work’s not done. Yes, my kids complain. They make faces. They poke at their vegetables and ask for more bread instead. It’s part of parenting. However, I do think I have fewer food-based battles than other families I have spent mealtimes with. Thanks to all that early and ongoing research, I’ve found and stuck to six critical practices around food.
- Be a role model.
Eat healthy foods yourself. Don’t complain. Smile and say, “Mmmmm.” Remember, you’re the grown-up here. I am honest when I don’t like something. Sometimes I eat it anyway, sometimes I pass on it.
Examples: “I don’t really like peas, but I eat them anyway because I know they are good for me.”
“No thank you, I don’t care for green apples.”
I even ban “yucky,” “eew,” and “gross” when talking about food, especially when seated at the table. It’s not only rude to the cook (a.k.a. me), but if an older child says, “Spinach is gross,” younger children are automatically deterred from trying it. A polite “No thank you” is preferred, or a simple “I don’t like it” is OK.
- Distinguish the difference between “snacks” and “treats.”
It’s not just semantics, it’s an important distinction. Snacks are healthy mini meals, with the intention of nourishing the body and brain and staving off hunger. A treat is something special to have once in a while. After nine years, I am still reminding my husband and daughter to use the right term at the right time. A cupcake is a “treat.” An apple with nut butter is a “snack.”
- One family, one meal.
Do not make special meals for picky eaters. Try to include one or two sides at each meal your child does like. It makes the other foods easier to try. When they are old enough, the option for them to make themselves a peanut butter sandwich is OK. But they need to make it, not you.
- Do not turn mealtimes into battles.
Don’t try to force them to eat. Do not make pleasing you an incentive to eat. It puts all the power in their court. If they don’t eat dinner tonight, breakfast is just a sleep away; they will not starve.
Use: “You don’t have to eat it, but you aren’t allowed to complain about it.”
Not: “You can’t leave the table until you finish your broccoli.”
“Please eat your tomatoes for me.”
I do make eating veggies a prerequisite for having dessert, if there is one, but I don’t use dessert or treats as an incentive.
Use: “If you’re not hungry enough for green beans, you’re not hungry enough for cake.”
Not: “If you eat your peas, you can have a cookie.”
I do make an exception when it is a holiday or birthday party with family and friends around and everyone is having dessert. But if it’s just the four of us, the kids don’t get dessert if they didn’t eat a good dinner.
- Verbally encourage them to be adventurous.
And praise them when they do try it. Tell them you’re proud of them. Your praise means more to them than you may think.
Example: “You tried beets! It’s OK if you didn’t like them, I’m proud of you for trying.”
- Keep trying.
Research shows that it takes up to ten tries of a new food to decide if you like it or not. I have to thank my daughter’s science teacher for this tidbit. She learned this in class, brought this knowledge home, and reminds us all with pride. She keeps trying new foods, and so do we all.
Choosing vegetables, whole grains, and cooking from scratch isn’t just about taste, it’s about habits. I am constantly reminding myself that we want to raise adults, not children. Healthy eating is just one of those foundations that we help them build now; it will support them for a lifetime.