There are many things I am passionate about in my life but a few that I am proud I have been able to achieve with my children, and one of those things is their understanding of food and nutrition.
I have always believed, without an inkling of a doubt, that the right relationship with food and understanding of basic nutrition is one of the most important things in a child’s development, behavior and growth – which also helps maintain a healthy relationship with food into adulthood. Just as it’s important to teach our children math, reading and language skills, nutrition and food are right up there in the same box.
I became deeply interested in the world of nutrition and eating disorders at a very young age (age 11). I come from a family that LOVES food – and I still do. My love of food is what led me to understand the importance of our relationship with it – and how food can influence behavior so deeply with adults and even more so with children. I know from personal experience in my home and working in schools, the incredible difference in children’s behavior when snacking on fruits versus snacking on candy.
I admit that I could weep when I see a child under 4 drinking coca cola, I actually cringe at the site of soda being consumed by anyone of any age; but especially with kids. Knowing food and basic nutrition is unlike other skills because food is a necessity of living – everyone must eat and drink in order to live. Knowing how to play the piano is great, music is without a doubt important; but you can live without knowing how to play an instrument – the same cannot be said about food.
Are you or your friend someone who is on a never-ending diet from the age of 13? Do you want that for your kid? People who are ‘on a diet’ ironically end up spending most of their day thinking about food! But if the proper habits are instilled from the beginning, or as early as possible, what we consume does not have to consume our life.
And while genetics are definitely a factor, we do have the power to change things and allow our children to know how to live a healthy lifestyle without starvation or over-indulgence, regardless of genetics. And when I talk about genetics I am not talking about skinny versus fat, I am talking about cholesterol, diabetes, ADHD, Crohns, and unfortunately the list goes on and on and on… If your genetics are working against you – that’s an even bigger reason to make a bigger effort.
This is not a ‘shame on you’ kind of article. I wrote this because many people have asked me to help them ‘get started’. How do I make my family healthier? How do I change my child’s relationship with food? How do I make the right choices on a limited budget? How can I make healthy food and snacks when I have no time? Can you give me some healthy and easy snack ideas? All questions I hear a lot. I also want to emphasize that my house is not “junk free zone”. We have it all, just as most of us do; but the real question is what to cut out and how to balance everything so that it’s a healthy lifestyle and not just ‘the current diet’.
I know many people who want their children to be healthy, and just don’t know where or how to begin – so I wanted to share 8 simple and completely doable tips that aren’t complicated recipes involving hours in the kitchen (no, I am not going to tell you to make your own bran muffins or whole wheat bread) along with some things to keep in mind. It’s all about baby steps and breaking the cycle.
- Let’s start with something simple and super important: Drinks = water.
Your home should be a ‘water drinking zone only’. Don’t buy soda of any kind – do not bring it in the house. No bottled juices or syrups either. Juice should mean freshly squeezed, nothing more. Flavored water should be water that you put some actual fruits or vegetables into for flavor. And don’t tell me “but my kid won’t drink water” – if your kid grows up drinking water, they will continue to drink it and love it. – especially if they have no other options. Kids that need to develop new habits will drink water eventually if there are no other options and they are really thirsty – and they will learn to like it. I know for many kids cold water ‘softens the blow’ and makes it easier, so while room temperature water is better for you, pop a bottle or 2 in the fridge if necessary to make it ‘yummier’. Make fun ice shapes, even freeze little ‘prizes’ in the ice – water is not a punishment and should not be treated as such. Water is nature’s champagne. Seriously, this one is a game changer for both adults and kids, get them drinking water from the start so they don’t have to struggle with this later!
Who said that a snack had to be something made-up of preservatives, artificial flavors and sugar? Of course it’s fast and easy to hand over a snickers bar; but just because it’s in the “snack isle” in the supermarket does not make it a good snack. It’s just as fast to hand over an apple, clementine, plum, nectarine or banana – but 100 times better for you in every way. A bowl/bag of grapes, cherry tomatoes is also easy and healthy too. And sugar-free apple sauce is just as quick and easy as any pudding out there.
And if you have that extra time, steam some broccoli, slice a carrot, avocado or cucumber, strawberries, kiwi; all truly yummy snacks for kids.
Even if you do go for chocolate, take a minute to read the packaging, get something with less sugar and additives, go for something more pure and the darker the better.
USA corn is amazing, use it! Cook it and snack on it, we eat corn on the cob all the time at my house. And same for popcorn. Buy paper bags, put a scoop of kernels in there and fold the top well, pop the bag into the microwave – and you have air popped popcorn that is great. Please lose the adding ‘butter/sugar/salt/cheese’ part that turns it from a healthy snack into junk; you will see that soon you won’t even miss it.
For those who need a healthy option that will survive a full day in a bag/backpack, they do exist! Near the bags of chips you can usually find bags of banana or apple chips, nuts, dried fruits (raisins, apricots, dates, cranberries, etc.…) Also whole wheat salt-less pretzels and granola bars are good for those carb cravings – still always good to check the back for sugars and preservatives added, and these are easy items to find almost anywhere. I found this article specifically on granola bars, worth checking out.
And if you are looking for something more candy and “gummy” like, there are plenty of better options today other than chupa chips, skittles or jolly ranchers – but note they usually are a bit more expensive. Some to check out are Dole’s strawberry/grape/orange fruit snack, Annie’s and Stonyfield’s organic fruit snacks. My kids LOVE N.A.! fruit snacks, check them out (they sell them in Costco as well).
- Stop adding sugar and salt!!!!
One thing that drives me nuts is when eating a fruit salad or fruit plate for dessert, without the children even asking for it, my parents-in-law take sugar and sprinkle it on top – WHY? Why? Why? Fruits already have natural sugar in them, they are sweet and yummy and there is no need to ‘candy’ them. This is a ridiculous and outdated habit – cut it out! If you MUST sweeten something, use honey, it’s the best natural sweetener there is and is full of health benefits.
And while you are at it, throw away those salt shakers, don’t even be tempted to add more! Food is already so salty as it is, and it’s something that needs to be cut. If you are already used to eating salty food then this is the time to start shaving off the salt slowly – because it’s not a good habit and is somewhat of an addiction that is hard to break. Once you get accustomed to using less salt, you’ll see that suddenly foods that were normal to you before will seem so over seasoned and sometimes inedible! You will actually start tasting your food and ingredients better.
And when you do use salt, try using sea salt chunks and such instead – it’s more expensive which is good, because it forces us to use less.
Do yourself a favor, try to save the salt for melting winter ice and gargling for sore throats, and try to not even own sugar (brown or white).
On a side note, substitutes are no good because 98% of the time they are full of chemicals that are worse or just as bad. You do not want your kids eating or drinking that stuff, don’t replace the sugar with stevia, sweet&low or any of the other millions of brands out there. Don’t buy ‘diet’ anything for your kids, it’s replacing one bad thing with another bad thing.
- Food should be fun and exciting.
We have an important rule in our house, you don’t have to eat everything, you don’t have to like everything, but you must taste everything at least once. My kids are always very quick to point out this rule when referring to a new candy or cookie, but I am talking about dishes, vegetables, fruits and food types. Exploration of food should be fun and educational, and it’s important to create and enhance this curiosity in kids. Food can lead into discussions of history (why was this dish created? Many dishes have an entire history and story behind them), introduction to a new culture or religion, and also a region (where was this fruit/vegetable first cultivated and grown?), and colors and textures.
How can you know if you do or do not like something if you don’t taste it? We play lots of food games in our home, including the blind taste test, where I blindfold them and give them food to taste and guess what it is. This is a great way to get kids to try food in a fun way, and also lets them understand the importance sight plays in the taste of food. Just make sure not to put anything sharp or spicy or horrible as a joke, this is a fast way to lose their trust and end up with the opposite of the desired effect, where they end up becoming scared to taste new things. I always try to use easy items I know they know and like at first, and add maybe one or two new items to the mix.
- Keep things balanced
Everything in moderation. Cutting out “junk food” completely is very drastic in most cases unrealistic. It’s okay to have a cookie or piece of cake – but make sure that it’s 1-2 cookies and/or 1 piece of cake. One regular bag of M&Ms should not be consumed by one child, if you get them used to eating small amounts from the start, it will become natural to them. My kids see a regular bag of M&Ms or Skittles and they automatically split it among the 3 of them – they don’t even assume it’s something for one person to eat alone. This is simply because this is what they are used to, not because they don’t love candy as much as any other kid. You aren’t being “mean” by not letting your kid(s) eat an entire bag of potato chips or other crap. Get the burger and fries, but not everyday and not more than once a week.
And on that note, even with ‘healthy’ food, remember that nothing is healthy if you overdue it. Eating ½ an avocado is great, but eating 6 is bad.
Also, one way to make sure one does not go overboard is to not get to points of hunger. Know your kids, have a consistent scheduled meal time. Our stomachs can be set to work like clocks, and it’s healthier if there is a set time for food. And it’s better to snack throughout the day (see healthy snacks above) than to eat huge meals. You’ll notice that your child’s behavior will change for the better if they get food at the same times everyday and don’t reach the point of hunger.
- Chew your food
This one seems basic and obvious, but surprisingly it isn’t done. Many of us inhale our food. We end up eating lots more than our body needs and it takes a lot longer to digest the food as well. Take notice, next time you eat try to take smaller bites and notice how many times you actually chew your food before you swallow it. Most of us will be surprised, and it’s something that I myself struggle with – I really need to think about it while I am eating. We’re so used to being in a hurry, but eating isn’t supposed to be a race. For those kids that are super young, chewing is something that really needs to be taught. Don’t pile the food on their fork/spoon and set a number of minimum chews needed before swallowing. Let them enjoy and think about the taste.
- Set An Example
This goes without saying, just like with everything else in life, we need to set an example for our children. You can’t tell your kid not to drink Coke while downing a bottle. It just doesn’t work that way. If you can’t see yourself cutting out these bad habits from your own life and making a real lifestyle change, then hide it, and hide it well (kids see way more than we can ever know). As far as your kids know, you drink water (and maybe an occasional glass of wine), you snack on nuts and veggies, and you don’t go on ‘diets’ ever.
- Know your food
Grow a vegetable or spice on your porch/yard/window sill. Let your kids see where the tomato or basil comes from and how it grows. If you can take them on annual trip to a farm of sorts to pick their own fruits and veggies, even better! Hearing kids think that veggies and fruits come from the supermarket is heartbreaking.
And absolutely get children involved in food preparation – and I am not talking about baking. I am talking about having your children help in making their actual meals, (not dessert). There is a job appropriate for almost every age, from washing, to peeling, to cutting, to shaping the turkey balls – and it makes a difference in their eating, and it’s fun.
Seeing and preparing your food usually helps to increase the curiosity and desire to taste. This all might seem less important, but it isn’t. Food should be interesting and not boring or scary. Cakes and candy are always associated with colors and fun – but it’s our food that should have this association, and when it does, it helps to establish a positive and healthy relationship with real food and makes it less about the junk food. Healthy foods should be used as a reward, never as a punishment.
On a separate point, for those of you with babies and thinking about or dealing with ‘first tastes’. While the rules of when to begin giving water and solid food always change, the concept remains the same: the point is to expose your child to new tastes that will make them curious about food and also give them needed nutrition. When your baby spits out the mushed peas, banana or carrots the first 10 times you give it to them – do not panic, this normal and fine. It does not mean they do not like it, it does not mean they are suffering, and does not mean you should give up. And please don’t add sugar or salt to baby food, it is not needed in anyway and only starts the bad habits way too early. If they get used to eating blander food it will only be better and healthier for them in the long run. This is the time and chance to have tiny humans get to know the taste of food in it’s purest form – spices can be added much later. Also, there is no need to have your baby taste cake, french fries, candy or junk of any kind – this is not what “first tastes” are for. No one really needs help liking gummy worms, if anything, they will be better off in life if they don’t like them. But don’t fret, even if you don’t give your baby chocolate cake to taste within the first year, they will most likely still enjoy it later in life.
When you are ready for the next few steps, let me know, I’d be happy to share; and I hope this helps set the stage to a healthier lifestyle.
Remember this, we are what we eat! Think about it, understand it, memorize it, and live it.
As always, I’ll end this post with 4 fun children stories my kids and I love that help encourage eating and tasting:
Dry Pasta & Toast
by Tali K. Gadish
This story is part of the Library of Miss Gadish collection, I wrote it originally for my niece who is a very troublesome eater. Our heroine, Jean, eats nothing but dry pasta and toast, her life is very bland for this reason as well, though it takes her a while to realize it. The story is told in black and white, and as more food is introduced to Jean’s diet, more color is added to the images. Finally at the end Jean goes from being black and white to full color. Kids have responded amazingly to the story and really get the point, and it’s a great story to show how food adds so much more into our lives than we even realize and get them curious and ready to try new foods.
Green Eggs & Ham
by Dr. Seuss
A classic and a goody, as all Dr. Seuss stories are… ‘I don’t like Green Eggs and Ham, and I will never like them no matter what!’ Is the basic theme we hear from the unnamed character. However Sam does not give up and finally, after so much pestering our nameless character tastes the plate, and loves it! You have most likely heard of this story, read it, and loved it – but in case you haven’t, pick up a copy, it’s fabulous. You and your kids will be reciting lines from it forever, and it’s a great story for meal time.
Dragons Love Tacos
by Adam Rubin
Okay, honestly, my kids love this story. I don’t really get it, but they go crazy for it. It was the reason we introduced ‘taco night’ into our monthly dinner routine. The premise is literally the title, the story is about how dragons love tacos. But since it got my kids curious about a new kind of food, tacos, and excited to prepare and taste, I love it.
I Will Never Eat A Tomato
By Lauren Child
From the Charlie and Lola series, this is an ‘episode’ about how Lola is a super picky eater, and will not taste almost anything. Her brother Charlie is left with the difficult task of feeding her, and finds a way of making up fantastical stories about the different vegetables and fruits that make Lola want to taste them. It’s cute, and there is even a full animation of the story you can find on youtube. I credit this story to getting one of my kids eating carrots again after 2 years of sudden refusal.