If you’re a parent, you probably understand how hard it is to encourage your kids to eat healthily. Children are often fussy eaters, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of just being glad that they’re eating at all. They need food to sustain growth, and to keep them focused at school – but beyond that, is it really important that they eat certain foods, or can you just get away with letting them eat anything?
Don’t Get Into Battles With Kids Over Food
Eating well isn’t a black and white thing – it’s a series of sustained choices. One bad choice doesn’t nullify all the good choices that you’ve ever made – but eating an apple doesn’t give you a free pass to eat lots of cake either. Once you realise that it becomes easier for your kids, and you, to lead a healthy lifestyle.
The first thing you need to do if you want your kids to eat healthily is to stop fighting battles with them. Stock the house with healthy foods, and offer a few healthy options. Don’t negotiate. Don’t make a big deal out of the food being healthy. Just ask your kids “Would you like an apple or a banana with your drink?” and leave it at that.
Serve up a few healthy options at lunch time. Let your child have fish fingers, but put out jacket potatoes, peas, beans, a side salad and anything else nutritious. Don’t serve chips. Don’t bring out dessert unless they actually eat a sensible serving of the main meal. If they say they aren’t hungry, then tell them it’s OK for them to leave the table, and if they get hungry later then there is “X healthy option” in the fridge.
You might find that your kids really, genuinely don’t like certain foods. In that case, yes, stop serving them. Often, however, they just simply aren’t hungry, and they won’t eat that food right now, but they’ll eat it later. They may be using food as a way to exert power – refusing to eat certain foods just as a way to test boundaries.
If you don’t offer the option of sweet treats too often, then they’ll not come to expect them. Serve yogurts, celery sticks with peanut butter, crackers with cheese, carrot sticks, bananas, apples – all healthy snacks that can satisfy the craving for something sweet, crunchy or filling.
School Starts Fresh Battles With Food
School age children can be harder to satisfy, since in the school environment they will be exposed to more food options, more fussy eaters, and kids/parents with different attitudes to food. Even if you have managed to keep your child away from exposure to sweet cereals, chocolate bars, ice cream and candy, you’ll find that they suddenly want child-friendly finger foods, chemical laden juices and sugary snacks. If you make a big deal of them being forbidden, then you’ll have another battle with them.
That’s why it’s so important to instill a generally healthy attitude to food. Don’t talk about weight, don’t talk about good foods and bad foods, just set a good example in everything from the foods that you eat, to how much you eat. Instead of saying “I shouldn’t eat too much of this, because I don’t want to get fat”, say “This is really nice, but I’m full, so I’ll save the rest for later.” or “This tastes really good. I’m going to have a small piece now and enjoy another tomorrow.”
Don’t bribe kids with food. It makes sense to explain to children that they need to eat a certain amount of protein to grow strong, and that vegetables contain vitamins which keep them healthy. It makes sense to say that it’s OK to eat chocolate sometimes, and that sugar is a good source of energy but too much sugar can be bad for your teeth. It can be a good idea to give your children some control and choice – tell them that if they study hard for their next test they can go to the cinema, and you’ll buy them either popcorn or ice cream, for example. But don’t build up a scenario where your kids always expect good behavior to be rewarded with chocolate.
Consider getting your kids involved with cooking to help them get more enthusiastic about healthy eating. Even relatively young kids can try some age- appropriate cooking tasks, whether that’s cutting vegetables (with supervision), measuring out liquids, mixing up recipes or decorating cakes.
You can get kids involved with shopping too – have them read food labels an look out for foods high in fibre or protein. If a family member has allergies, teach them to look out for the ‘ingredients to avoid’. Get your kid use to planning ahead too. Give them the power to make decisions – they can take a bag of crisps to school for a treat at lunch time, or they can have a chocolate bar while watching a little TV when they get home from school, but they shouldn’t have both. They can have french fries on Friday evening, but if they do that, maybe on Saturday instead of having a pizza it would be more sensible for them to order a more balanced meal. Get them used to the idea that eating healthy is about balance, not always depriving yourself.