Eating good food can be difficult. We live in a processed society, and everywhere we walk we are bombarded not only by advertising, but by opportunity. There are drive-thrus, sure, but holiday dinners, potlucks, friendly invitations, or even just drinks with friends can prove difficult if you’re trying to eat whole foods. Add to this a few kids that you have to convince to shun Chester Cheetah, almost all food served at birthday parties, and brightly-colored cereal marshmallows and you definitely have your work cut out for you.
Before I begin, there are a few things you should know about me. I had kids when I was young, four by the time I was 27. This means that here as I enter my 30s I have a 12-year-old, and while my peers are having their first or second children, reveling in the newborn stage and learning the ins and outs of cloth diapering, I am focused on teaching my kids how to read, exploring algebra, deciding what age I allow my daughter to start reading novels with more adult content. It means that despite the fact that I look like I could be my kids’ sister (being shorter than my oldest helps), I am not. I am their mom, and together we are and have been navigating what it means to eat healthy in this processed world we live in for quite some time. Long enough that I feel like I have a few things to share about the successes and failures on my end.
Before I tell you what has worked for me I want to be clear: Your mileage may vary. Teaching kids to appreciate food is at least a thrice-daily ordeal. You have to approach the topic at once at each meal, sometimes more often. It’s definitely more of a way of life than a once-learned lesson, and it isn’t foolproof or perfect. My kids have all gone through stages of hating what we serve (usually ages 5 to 7 are the worst for this). Still, I view it as teaching my kids how to say “please” and “thank you.” There is plenty of repetition, behavior modeling, persistence, reminders, and finally, if you play your cards right, your children will start using it without your constant nagging.
1. Go Shopping.
I can’t tell you how many times I tell people that we visit the farmers market and the grocery store with all four of our kids. The color drains from people’s faces, and they either think we are insane or they give me an excuse as to why that’s a horrible idea. I am here to tell you it is not.
Taking my kids to the store helps them understand the food we’re eating. They see our produce in its true form, oftentimes before the dirt has been washed off. They know why we avoid artificial sweeteners, food dyes, HFCS and MSG, and they know how to look for them. It is the single most important lesson for them because they take those lessons away from the house and to their friends’ houses, when they start taking trips with their sports teams, and in the classroom. Maybe you don’t take your kids shopping every week, but try to make time in your schedule to expose them to the food you are eating at its beginnings.
2. Cook with Your Kids.
I am, in fact, suggesting you bring children into the scary environment that is the kitchen and relinquish control to small, inexperienced hands. As a Type-A perfectionist, I know that this can be difficult and stressful, but it is also very rewarding. My kids’ acceptance of new foods always goes more smoothly when they have been included on the shopping and the preparation. Start slow and build the skills your kids can help with. You would be surprised how much children can learn in a small amount of time, and teaching them a general respect for the kitchen and what goes on there is an invaluable skill. Check out my list of rough guidelines for ideas on how to get your kids excited and helping in the kitchen.
3. Eat Together.
With all the running around that we do, it can be difficult to carve out a dinnertime with the family. Still, research shows us important this step is in raising healthy and well-adjusted kids. Not only that, but watching what your kids are eating can help you understand their habits. For instance, I know that my four-year-old can take a while to get going, but once he does, he can be the best eater, not even considering foods he might not like and trying most everything without question. I know it’s his habit to drink a full glass of water and talk to everyone at the table before he ever takes the first bite most nights, and so I try not to rush him and give him his space to eat.
Knowing your children’s personal habits can help you understand if your kids eat one item at a time or all together, taking bites of each. It will help you see that all food habits are not avoidance, and this can be invaluable when introducing new foods. Plus, showing them how you eat is a great way to model what you’d like to see them do.
No time during the week? Make time on Saturdays and Sundays or give weekday breakfasts a go. There is always time for the things we place importance on.
4. Be Willing to Bend the Rules.
Remember that your kids are people, too. There are times when I allow myself dessert, pieces of chocolate, cocktails, and other indulgences. The sheer nostalgia associated with certain foods has me eating them on those special occasions where I’m presented with them, and I can do so without guilt because I know that the other 97.5% of the time I am eating a different way.
Barring any allergies or medical issues, try not to ban your children from foods forever. For my kids, they know the what and why we avoid things, and they’re content to play by those rules. I do, however, make exceptions, and we talk about the exceptions. When my then 6-year-old overdosed on Halloween candy, we talked about how crummy he felt afterward and why, explaining the effects sugar can have on the body. Now when my kids find themselves with a plethora of treats, they are quick to tell me how they’re going to eat some and save the rest for a treat for a different time. Are they likely to overindulge again? Of course. We’ll just explain the sentiment again and continue onward.
5. Enjoy Your Food.
So, we don’t buy the Ding Dongs and bags of cheese-powder-coated chips or the fun yogurt with the sprinkles, the soda in effervescent colors. Rather than fighting about why not, we discuss, and still there are issues. This is where it becomes important to celebrate the things we do eat that are fun and that taste good. My kids have an appreciation for honey sticks from the farmers market. We all get excited when we make the trip to our local artisan ice cream shop where the room smells like freshly baked waffle cones. When we buy candy we go all out, and we savor small bites and make them last for days and weeks. Baking a cake is a family affair, and the anticipation is sometimes better than the act of eating it. Taking time to appreciate those moments and activities helps us to truly understand the value of them rather than just tossing a box of individually packed snack cakes in the cart without a second thought.