As parents, we all want our children to grow up strong and well nourished, with a good sense of nutrition and a healthy approach to food. In reality, that's a far trickier proposition than most of us count on. “When your kids are at home with you, you can decide what they're going to eat,” says Elizabeth Pavka, PhD, RD, LN, a holistic nutritionist in Asheville, North Carolina. “But you won't be with your kids 24 hours a day forever. Between media influences, peer pressure, poor-quality school lunch programs, and easy access to convenience foods, kids are faced with a lot of temptation.” It's important to help them understand how to make wholesome choices on their own and to create an environment that will nurture healthy food habits as they grow. Here's how.
Work with natural tastes and habits
Kids require frequent refueling — and they'd love to do it with cookies and lollipops. “Children are born with a natural taste and desire for sweet foods and carbohydrates,” says Joel Fuhrman, MD, board-certified family physician and author of Disease Proof Your Child, (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). “And as animals, we're programmed to seek out foods that offer the most calories for the least energy expenditure.” Instead of fighting a sweet tooth, work with it by offering healthier treats, such as a colorful array of fresh fruit. “Preparation is key,” says Jay Holt, a nutritionist in St. Petersburg, Florida, and author of The Adventures of Tommy the Tomato (JR Holt, 2007). “Always have a fruit salad ready to go, or frozen banana, or apples to spread with almond butter. That way kids will have a fast, nutritious alternative to a cookie.”
Get kids involved
Cooking with your children is a powerful way to get them invested in making healthy choices and to explain the nutritional value of various foods. As you chop the carrots, slice the zucchini, or add beans to stew, talk about why each is good for the body. “Kids have a vested interest in eating the foods they've helped prepare,” says Pavka. A few kid-friendly cookbooks can help, especially those with lots of illustrations and fun names for dishes. Some ideas: Salad People and More Real Recipes by Mollie Katzen (Tricycle, 2005), Cooking Rocks! by Rachael Ray (Lake Isle, 2004), and The Kid's Cookbook by Abigail Johnson Dodge (Oxmoor House, 2000). At the grocery store, let them choose the fruits and vegetables that appeal to them, or make a game of it: Ask them to find their favorite green, orange, and red vegetables, or to choose which nuts or beans they'd like to add to a salad.
Encourage mindful eating
Raising healthy eaters also means helping kids understand when they're thirsty or hungry, what their bodies are asking for, and the difference between eating until they're satisfied versus stuffed. Practice being mindful during mealtimes by commenting on the meal itself — saying “I like the green beans cooked like this tonight. What do you think?” Or by asking “How does the black-bean soup feel in your body?” Don't get heavy or intense about it; just make the occasional observation, then let it go. And forget the clean-plate club — it's the fastest way to encourage kids to ignore their bodies' messages.
Never, ever bribe with food
Or reward, or punish. It's tempting because it works so well. But it sends the subtle message that food equals approval and love — a dangerous message that's hard to escape later in life. “As an adult, you're depressed, so you buy a pint of ice cream or a dozen donuts to make yourself feel better,” says Holt. “Obviously, that doesn't work.” Instead of using food as a reward, offer treats that have more to do with connecting — a trip to their favorite park, hugs, an extra book at bedtime. And don't fall into the “if you eat your peas, you'll get your pie” trap. It makes dessert more valuable than vegetables — not a lesson you want to teach.
Be the boss
Sometimes we're so fearful of creating negative food associations for our children that we shy away from insisting on good eating habits. That's just silly, says Fuhrman. “We want our children to wear their seat belts,” he says. “We want them to wear helmets when they ride bicycles. And because we love them, we want them to eat healthy foods.” Insist that they eat at least a portion of fruits or vegetables at every meal and that they minimize sweets, refined carbs, and unhealthy fats. Tell them the reason for your rule — because you love them and want them to be healthy. “There's no reason to be fearful of that message,” says Fuhrman, “or to believe that it will set up unhealthy emotional eating patterns later in life.”
This is a journey, and it takes time and repetition. Expect your kids to balk, especially at first. Setbacks will happen all along the way. Be calm and matter-of-fact, and avoid power struggles. And continue to set a stellar example with your own food choices. “They'll notice what you and the rest of the family are eating,” says Pavka. “At some point, they'll just come along for the ride.”