How to Raise Kids to be Healthy Eaters
This is one of the most frequently asked questions we get! Parents will observe what our kids eat and ask how we do it. First of all, disclaimer! Our kids are kids and when they are offered junk food - they usually want it. They are not perfect eaters who only crave kale and love everything we cook. They also go through phases just like any kids - our 5 year old recently went through a little phase of not wanting to drink smoothies. We couldn't believe it - smoothies are sweet and delicious! But she wasn't feeling 'em.
When our oldest started rejecting healthy foods she used to like or would ask to eat the cookies and candy at the parties, initially it kind of freaked me out. I worried that she was no longer going to eat any of the foods I gave her and would turn into a crazy animal that drank soda and ate donuts all day! Okay, not exactly that but it definitely worried me. Over time, however, we learned a few things:
1. Kids eat what is familiar - this means that most children will shy away from new foods, but it also means that we can usually help them to eat healthy ones simply by making it familiar! When our daughter started eating solids, for the most part, she was open to eating all the healthy foods we cooked for her. Our son, on the other hand, has been more like the stereotypical child that doesn’t like green things. Children have their own personalities so don’t worry if your child responds differently than other children or seems to be more stubborn with eating veggies. Be patient and just keep making those foods familiar. When the family is eating broccoli, don’t skip your toddler’s plate. Include a floret with their meal so that they get accustomed to simply seeing it there. Try cutting it into small pieces, leaving it whole, steaming it, serving it raw, mixing it in with some avocado or rice, etc. The important thing is that it is becoming familiar.
2. Kids are typically so much better than adults at listening to their bodies - this phrase, "listen to your body" is one that my kids hear A LOT from me. I think it started because my own health journey has been such a rollercoaster and for most of my life was driven by outside influences and strict guidelines. Finally in my late 20's I've learned that at the end of the day, I want to be in tune with my body and even if I'm not a size 2 or don’t have perfectly sculpted arms, I feel good if my actions are in line with what my body is telling me. This isn't just referring to food. I encourage our daughter to sleep if her body is telling her she needs sleep. I take a rest day from working out if my body is telling me it needs it. Our daughter has learned to leave the room or even go on a walk outside if her body is telling her she needs to be alone and breathe. This concept is a top priority for us to teach our children and as they've grown, we feel they are born with a strong ability to already do this and our job is to simply keep them in tune to that.
3. Kids have moods just like us and sometimes they just don't feel like eating something - One of the parenting philosophies we try to follow is treating our children just as we would want to be treated. With food this means respecting their moods and preferences. This doesn’t mean that we let them eat processed junk all day or even accept it as fact when they say they don’t like something (we encourage eating a small bite frequently to slowly adjust their taste buds). But it does mean that we give them space to develop their preferences and we don’t have rules like, “no leaving the table until your plate is empty.” I usually love a good salad, but sometimes I’m just not in the mood and it is the same with our kids. As frustrating as it can be when I’ve cooked a nice dinner and the kids aren’t feeling it, we do our best to accommodate (within reason!) and talk it through with them to come to a compromise that will still give them the nutrition they need and not waste the food prepared.
On a similar note, remember that early childhood is made up of rapidly changing phases and what your child does/doesn’t like today could completely change tomorrow (and change right back the next day!). If your child doesn’t like green foods now, remember that one day he/she will!
4. It is our job to decide and enforce the "absolutes" and it is perfectly okay to have boundaries we will not cross - a few months ago we were at a BBQ and I didn't prepare Mila for the fact that there would be lots of foods everyone else would be eating that we don't eat. Being the social butterfly that she is, she was upset when she wanted to eat the "long brown things" (hot dogs) the other kids were eating and I said no. Honestly, I was feeling pressure to let her eat it, there was a voice in my head saying, "Let her be like the other kids and eat the hot dog just this once." But luckily before giving in to that, I stepped back and realized that aside from the hot dog and her health, what lesson would I be teaching her if I allowed her to eat something just to fit in? One of my goals with my children is to teach them the exact opposite of that! I want them to be brave and to stand out - not in an attention-seeking way, but I want them to have the courage to be different if it is the right thing to do. As for the health aspect, it is widely understood that smoking causes cancer and there would be severe consequences for allowing a child to smoke. There are foods that are just as harmful to their long-term health and for those, we will not compromise. When we have conversations with our children about the reasons for these rules, the tantrums become less and less frequent.
5. Avoid making absolute statements - Try to avoid saying things like, “Susie doesn’t like vegetables.” Susie hears you and this teaches her that it is part of her identity, rather than a TEMPORARY preference. Instead, focus on making that food more familiar like I mentioned in tip #1.
6. It can take up to 15 times trying a new food for a child to actually like it - Don’t offer the kale once and decide that your child just doesn’t like it. Keep offering and offering AND OFFERING! Your child doesn’t always have to eat it (as frustrating as that may be) but if they get used to seeing it on their plate, they will eventually try it and probably eventually like it. For months, Kai refused to eat broccoli but we never stopped offering. Suddenly one day, after MONTHS of offering, he saw the broccoli and said, “Ooo! Broccoli!” and chowed down. Now he’s back in a non-broccoli phase. It is a rollercoaster during the toddler years but be patient and keep offering and trust that those healthy foundations are being built.
7. Offer whole foods FIRST - This doesn’t mean your child can never have a sweet or salty treat, but try to offer the good stuff first. Your child is much more likely to say yes to the apple if they haven’t seen the cookie yet. This also establishes a great habit of eating whole over processed. So many of the health problems caused by food later in life are simply poor habits learned earlier in life. We are not seeking nutrition perfection, but our goal is to gift our children with those habits that will lead to long term health and amazing quality of life!
I’ve seen funny memes about feeding our babies 100% organic perfect diets only to have them live off of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese later. While I understand this more and more as our children get older, I’ve seen firsthand that avoiding the processed foods for as long as possible and focusing on whole plant foods instead has established preferences for our children. Our 5 year old will often choose the whole foods because that is what her body craves, and it all started with those simple habits. Don’t give in to the idea that there’s no point in trying, those habits matter.
8. Be the example! - We are always working to improve our habits, establish new healthier habits, and overcome the poor habits we’ve already learned. We are far from perfect but we see the impact our food choices make on our children and we want those to be positive. We want our children to catch us choosing the water over the soda or the fruit over the cake. Children learn most and learn best from us!
The simple answer to getting our kids to eat healthy is that we start healthy eating habits from the very beginning and practice what we preach. The goal is not to be obsessive or create obsessive, guilt-ridden little ones. Our goal is to always increase our learning and understanding of positive health and nutrition and establish the simple habits that support that. Overreacting when our children are given a lollipop without our permission doesn’t do anyone any good, but making our homes safe havens where our children can fuel their bodies to be healthy and well does a whole lot of good.
Best of luck and know that your children are already so lucky to have a parent like you who is seeking learning and growth!