A new year brings with it new opportunities to improve our family’s eating habits. I spend a lot of time in my family nutrition practice helping parents with their “picky eaters.” That could be the primary reason for their visit, or the picky eating could be complicated by a diagnosis that requires a child to go on a special diet in which their favorite foods are no longer on the menu. This adds layers to their nutrition issues and it is my job to peel the proverbial onion.
How do we transition our kids to the right path with minimal conflicts? What are the underlying issues associated with food battles? Every child is unique, and that cannot be understated. But there are some common denominators with them and hopefully this post will provide you with some ideas to chew on.
It is not a news flash to you that kids want to make their own choices. When parents force things on their children, the natural thing they do is push back. But does that mean we should give children all the decision-making when it comes to eating? Absolutely not. Parents often take this thought too far in allowing their children to make too many choices on their own. It’s all about guiding them. With food, provide acceptable choices from which they may choose. That is the main theme, and here are three of the most important ways in which you can implement them:
1. Expose your children repeatedly. Exposue your children to a variety of foods. This should start super early in your child’s life and continue as they grow older. Do not delete a food off your child’s menu because they reject it one time or even multiple times. Avoid saying statements such as, “He/she does not like (fill in the food).” A child’s body is growing and developing – and that includes their taste buds! Parents provide the healthy meals and the child gets to choose to eat them or not. If they don’t eat dinner because they don’t like how it looks, that’s OK! But don’t provide an alternate meal of their choice, and don’t allow them to have a snack after dinner of their own food preference. This will never encourage them to try new foods! Stay strong, Mom and Dad. If they are hungry later, you can tell them that you are more than happy to heat up their dinner plate. If you stick to your guns on this one and your kids see that throwing a tantrum does NOT get their way, they will eat the dinner. If you have this in place from the beginning, it’s less of a struggle. They don’t know any different. But if you have done this wrong in the past, communicate that this is the new way and we are not going back.
2. Assess your home’s food environment. A new year should involve going through the kitchen and doing a food balance assessment. We just survived the holidays with parties, cakes and treats. When you look into your pantry and/or fridge, are 90% of the available foods healthy? If not, you may need to make some changes. We must fill our home with “always” foods and if there are any “sometimes” foods that are being over consumed, remove them from your home. Make healthy foods ready-to-eat so those snacks are as easy as grabbing a bag of chips.
3. Involve your children. Your entire family must be a part of the entire feeding process. That includes planning, shopping (or growing!), preparing, eating and cleaning. The parents are in charge (and must stay in charge), but the children should be involved as helpers in age-appropriate ways. A toddler can help set the table while a teenager can be in charge of cooking one night. Involve your children in the “why’s” behind healthy eating as well. A family is a team and teams must work together to stay healthy so they can meet all their life’s goals. Food is literally the fuel for our precious bodies! Use the MyPlate visual as a guide to help plan meals, and have your children (school-age or older) make their own school lunches that include all the items. If they buy their lunch, go over the school menu and encourage them to use the MyPlate when choosing their lunch.
How ironic is it that being a parent is THE hardest job on the planet and there is no training manual? When it comes to raising healthy eaters, constantly be thinking about the behaviors around feeding children. Empower them to make the healthy choices so they will choose them on their own. That, my friends, is the key to raising a healthy adult.