It doesn't matter what your genetic make-up is... a healthy diet full of whole foods is important! It helps you produce energy to grow, heal, and stay healthy. It keep your immune system functioning correctly and can even help mood! I really do believe that diet is the foundation of good health (along with hydration and adequate sleep) and so many people I talk to are looking for ways to help themselves and their families eat better. Lately it seems like almost daily I hear parents saying the same phrase over and over again...
"My child won't eat anything healthy. They are such a picky eater!"
Children, like adults, are creatures of habit. They find a food they like and latch on to it. After all, why risk new foods that may or may not be good when they KNOW that their favorite food is delicious? We like to think that as adults we have a widely varied palette, but when it comes down to it most of us prepare the same handfuls of meals over and over again on a very regular basis. While it's not quite the "Meatloaf Monday" world it was a few decades ago, where the same seven meals were alternated with unvaried precision, even as adults we get stuck in our routine and kids are no different. Unfortunately, the foods they tend to crave are rarely things like kale or summer squash. Mac & cheese, pizza, chicken nuggets, pasta- a nutritional nightmare, but at least they are eating, right? My children are no exception- ask my three year old what she wants for dinner and the answer is always the same- "hot dogs and noodles". Ugh. However, she also will beg (much to the delight of fellow shoppers) for cucumbers, apples, tomatoes, and carrots. Just yesterday she grabbed a bag and started filling it with snap peas. The fact is, this child is stubborn and could very easily have been the pickiest eater ever, but to me creating healthy habits in her has been a priority. It's been a battle sometimes, though, believe me! How have we gotten to the point where I have had to buy a bunch of broccoli that I hadn't planned on purchasing because she took a big bite out of it? Consistency, creativity, and a bit of trickery.
Obviously we are unique individuals and one specific recommendation does not work for each person. Here are some ideas that I have seen work in both my practice as a naturopathic physician, as well as in the more challenging role of mother. One of the most important gifts we can give our children is that of healthy habits.
1. MAKE THEM BEG!
While manipulating your child is generally regarded as a negative practice, it can also be used as a powerful tool. Try bringing home a new food (preferrably one they haven't turned their nose up at before and that tastes great). Make a big deal about how excited you were to find this food you love and eat it with zeal. Exaggerate how amazing it is. Make THEM ask YOU for it. Even better, I have used this technique multiple times and when my daughter asks to try it I just tell her she needs to clean her room, pick up toys, or whatever needs to be done, before she can get a treat. Doublely awesome.
Your parenting style is completely up to you but understand that consistency is key in every method. Kids crave it. There seem to be three main philosophies around eating. Some parents choose to cook separate meals that they know their child likes so there is no battle and they get food into them. Pro: children eat. Con: there tends to be little variety and generally minimal nutrition, plus more effort for the parent. Others require their children to clean their plate before they are allowed to leave the table. Pro: wider variety of foods, less effort for parent, child isn't hungry Con: can make children resent meal time and causes conflict. Others fall into the "This is what's for dinner. Eat it or don't." category. Pro: wide variety of food, choice left to child, no extra work for parent Con: child may go hungry. While I totally understand the temptation of the first style, I find this tends to foster resentment in parents and overall is detrimental to healthy habits. Whichever you choose, though, stick with it. If you require the child to clean their plate one night, only to give in and make them something separate the next night, they will continue to push the limits every day to see if they can get you to cave.
3. FAKE UNTIL YOU MAKE IT
While teaching healthy skills, you still need to make sure your child is getting enough nutrition. A great way to increase fiber if they are constipated is to use fiber powder (they have flavorless/ colorless options). You can add it to soups, stews, batters, juice, or pretty much anything you can think of and they will never notice! Just make sure this recommendation is paired with plenty of fluids or it can backfire. Another great trick is to make fruit smoothies with dark berries. You can throw a handful of frozen spinach or a scoop of avocado and they will never know. I sneak all sorts of healthy things into my smoothies- protein powder? Sure! Ground seeds- yup! My children (and my husband- shhhh... don't tell!) never notice.
4. PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD
Present food in a fun way- make fruit into a face, heart, truck shape. I'm a big fan of fun food. For Valentine's Day my daughter got a heart-shaped sandwich, heart shaped apple and cucumber slices, and a cookie in guess what shape... For St Patty's day there will probably be pickles and green beans, green pepper, broccoli... whatever! At Halloween we did veggies and dip, AKA creepy goo, and made scary faces with our cherry tomatoes and celery. It was super fun! Christmas was all about the Santa fruit skewers. Pinterest is full of great ideas to get you started! Fruit is a good place to start as most kids like it, even if they don't know it.
5. REWARD BASED MEALS
While I do tend to just present dinner and give my kids the option to eat it or not, I also regularly use a reward base for meals if I know they are likely to eat all of the least nutritious food and then say they are done. With this, I put a couple bites of something they really like on their plate, plus a bite of something new or less desired. Once they eat the new food they can have a couple more bites of their favorite, then they need to eat another bite of the new food... etc. Effort, yes, but it works well, especially with younger kids. If you give your child treats make it exactly that- a treat. If they expect it, then it's no longer a treat.
6. TALK TO THEM
Talk to them. Children are very open to ideas and concepts. Even if they have no complaints, explaining that eating healthy foods will make them run faster or get sick less is enough for many kids. If they have complaints, it can be even easier, as they have incentive. I took my daughter off gluten due to chronic stomach issues and kept putting it off thinking it was going to be a challenge. Turns out all I really had to do was tell her that if she doesn't eat gluten her stomach would maybe stop hurting. She just said "oh, ok." and that was that. If she wants something all I have to do is tell her it has gluten and she understands. I'm still amazed it's not the daily battle I expected it to be. And yes, her issues have all resolved.
8. EMPOWER THEM
Children hate being told what to do, even if it's something they would have chosen anyway. Our battle over what to wear was solved by me presenting two tops and two bottoms (both matching with either choice) and let my child pick which shirt and bottoms she wanted to wear. She chose, so no issue. Less work for me overall. Food has been no different and I often will let her choose which vegetable we will have or even which meal. When given two options she feels like she is taking an active role in the meal and is much more likely to eat it. They can't use the excuse "I don't like that" if they picked it! (Ok, we all know they can but it's less likely...)
9. PEER PRESSURE
Get help from friends- if they have a friend your child really looks up to, have them eat with them and make sure it's healthy foods. Peer pressure can be positive, too :) Older siblings can also be a huge influence on your siblings.
10. LITTLE CHEF
Have you seen the movie Ratatouille? I love this movie- a rat who wants to be a world-class chef in Paris and helps a human come up with delicious foods- amazing! The philosophy behind this movie of "anyone can cook" applies to children, too. I love "non-cooking" with my child and even under age 2 she was able to help snap green beans or hand me items. Whenever I start dinner now she asks if I need my "little chef", which refers to this movie. If possible, I have her help me in any way I can. Last week I let her pick out all the vegetables for the salad and once I chopped them I let her add them in. This was the first time she actually ate all her salad and asked for more! Was it the tastiest salad I've ever had? Definitely not. Was it awesome to see how pleased she was? Absolutely.
What it comes down to is that our children are little sponges and they look to us for guidance. First and foremost, be an example. Does this mean your diet needs to be 100% clean? Please no! That's a whole other topic... I see a lot of children who are never allowed to have any sugar or other unhealthy foods who turn into adults who binge regularly. Why? They never learned moderation. I strongly believe the key to good health is exactly that- moderation. I love the saying "everything in moderation, even moderation." Sometimes things happen- oh, well. I always tell clients that if 95% of your food is good for your body, take the other 5% for your soul. It's still an A+ after all! Figure out what works for your child- some do best with easing in, while others benefit from large and sudden shifts. We are all unique individuals and our children are still figuring out who they are- do what you can to make healthy eating habits part of that person they will become!
Bon appetit, big & little chefs!
Aloha, Dr Sarah
Who I am:
I have been a practicing naturopathic phsyician since 2007, a mother since 2011, and a lover of food since birth. I've written for publications before but blogging is a new endeavor, so bear with me! I enjoy simple, healthy recipes that taste great and require minimal dishes. I'm happiest with the sun on my back and my hands in the dirt. I love the smell of rain and will always choose wildflowers over long stemmed roses. My oldest daughter will be turning 4 soon and my youngest just made one. And yes, the photo would be my Maile (my-lay) enjoying her apple yesterday- the snack she choose over everything else in the grocery store.