By Jane Sheppard
Many parents are frustrated at times because our children won’t eat the foods we know to be healthy for them. Simply being informed about a healthy diet for children is not enough. If your child does not want to eat healthy foods, it does them no good at all. So what does a parent do? Give up and take the path of least resistance? This path is serving the typical American diet which we know leads to poor health. Our children deserve better. But how do we convince them of that?
Start from the very beginning, if possible. You can give your child a solid foundation with good nutrition by breastfeeding for as long as possible. Breast milk is vital to a baby’s growing body and developing immune system. Let your child decide when it’s time to wean. Even three and four-year-olds receive substantial benefits from breast milk. When they are not eating as well as you’d like them to, at least they will be getting some nutrition from your milk. More importantly, they are receiving the emotional benefits that are unquestionably valuable in keeping them healthy. Begin to give your children a healthy whole foods diet the moment you start them on solids.
What about when children get older and they learn quickly from the world around them that there are foods that are quite different and may seem more appealing than what they are used to getting? Or if healthy eating is new to you and your family, your kids may be quite possessive of their junk foods. It’s not a good idea to force the healthy foods. Start slowly and gradually substitute with appealing alternatives. Kids need to be able to indulge now and then in sweets, but a well-nourished child does not crave sweets. Try not to label a food “good” or “bad”. This can create guilt and shame around wanting unhealthy foods, causing cravings and food addictions. A better way may be to call foods such as broccoli or whole grains “everyday” foods and cake and cookies “sometimes” foods. If children are made to “clean their plate” or are bribed with desert, they may feel that healthy eating is a chore. Some parents even serve a healthy desert with the meal so all foods have the same emotional appeal.
Eating should be fun and rewarding. It’s our job to provide wholesome, nutritious foods and their job to decide how much they want to eat. Kids will eat as much as they need. They will not let themselves go hungry. Meals should be relaxing, fun and pleasant. Nagging children to eat what you want them to does not work and is not respectful.
It can be a real challenge to attend parties or other affairs with tables loaded with “treats” consisting of sugar, white flour and hydrogenated oils. You know your child is going to lunge for them right away. I’ve learned not to ban these things entirely because it can create feelings of being deprived and wanting to have it even more. I put limits on it, making sure my daughter knows these are “sometimes” foods for special occasions. I also take the necessary steps to boost my daughter’s immune system before and after this invasion of junk to her body. At home, I make healthy treats using unrefined sweeteners, whole grains and unrefined oils.
Vegetables are the foods most likely to be shunned by children. There are many creative ways to encourage your children to eat and love vegetables. Children need to eat frequently and snacking is important. Avoid nibbling or grazing on filling foods that are not nutrient-rich or filling up on juice or soda. Make a snack of creatively appealing fruits or vegetables. Serving them with healthy dips makes them more fun. When it’s mealtime, serve vegetables as a first course “appetizer” when kids are the most hungry; then add the rest of the meal after they’ve eaten the vegetables. Experiment with different sauces to make them taste better and be more fun. Almost everything tastes better with a sprinkle of lemon juice. Explore and find a variety of vegetables and, when serving ones your kids have never tried, get excited about them. Mash or cream veggies into stews or soups. Try juicing vegetables. Some children love fresh carrot juice with added greens. Assume your child is going to love salads, greens and other veggies. Show them how much you love these wonderful foods. Set a great example by eating healthy yourself.
Get your kids involved with the growing, shopping and cooking of vegetables. Farmers’ Markets can be a fun shopping trip. Teach them what vegetables will do for their body and how important they are. Children are fascinated with and want to learn about their bodies. The more they learn, the better choices they will make. Most importantly, don’t give up too soon. When introducing new foods, serve them at least five different times before giving up. Don’t take the first “no” for a final answer and think they’ll never eat it again. You can even present it again shortly after it is turned down. You can do all this calmly and respectfully without nagging or bribing.
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