The old adage “You Are What You Eat” is true in many ways, as nutrition is one of the most important factors in a healthy lifestyle. Combined with physical activity, your diet can help you to reach and maintain a healthy weight, reduce your risk of chronic diseases (like heart disease and cancer), and promote your overall health. The foods you eat and how often you eat them can affect the health of your teeth and gums as well.
If you have children in the home, you also know that feeding your kids a healthy diet is one of the greatest parenting challenges you must undertake. Research shows that their early food experiences and your feeding strategies while they are young set the groundwork for their entire lives.
Even if you know there are unhealthy eating habits in your family, it is never too late to make corrections. There are some simple clean eating steps that you can take in your home, starting right now:
Be a Model For Your Children
It’s simply psychology: If we want our children to take care of their bodies, we must show them that we take care of our own. They see what we eat and how often we exercise, and they hear us when we talk about our own bodies. Do they hear you criticize your body, or do they know you are happy in your own skin? When you are hungry for a snack, what do they see you grab on the go? Are you open to trying new foods, or do you eat the same foods over and over?
Time for a Purge
Maybe you have a great strategy for mealtimes, and are working hard to provide healthy, nutritional meals. But what about the snacks in between? Every child (and parent) has a favorite snack or three, and a lot of Americans rely on salty, sugary, crunchy snacks between meals. You don’t necessarily need to dump those completely, but perhaps they should be reserved for special occasions. The problem occurs when your child sees those snacks in the pantry though, and refuses to eat anything else. Maybe the next time you shop, you should skip putting that unhealthy snack into the cart, and begin to purge your pantry of the less desirable foods.
Your child may not like it at first, but they can survive (and thrive!) without these types of foods. Fill your pantry with healthy snacks only, and you will probably find that they will begin to be drawn to healthier snacks naturally. And remember: it’s easier to get your child to focus on their nutritious meals if they are not distracted by unhealthy snacks in the pantry.
Can We Ditch the Label?
Everyone knows a “picky eater” when they see one, and has probably seen the mealtime struggles that can occur when a child likes only a few things. But by labeling a child a picky eater, are we creating more issues than we should? A child who hears that label may be getting a clear signal that we have low expectations from them about what they will eat, and will continue to be afraid to try new foods.
A child’s relationship with food is constantly evolving, so perhaps our expectations should evolve with them instead. A toddler may hate broccoli one day, but love it a month later. When we see the potential for healthy nutritional habits in our child, we will continue to introduce new foods to them as they grow and develop.
Make the Time to Cook with Your Kids
Cooking with children can help them understand how their food ends up on their plate. Yes, it can also be time-consuming and at times frustrating, but in the end we are engaging children in the process of creating healthy meals. They can gain skills they will carry throughout their lives, and yet they are skills we often fail to teach our children.
Cooking is also a sensory activity that teaches motor skills, and can give your child a true sense of accomplishment. So let them help wash the vegetables, turn on the blender for you, add spices and dressings, or any task that you know they can handle. An added benefit is as they get older, you will find that they are a big help to you in meal prep!
Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Foods Yourself
We all have our favorite foods, and our own diets are often limited to what we like the most. Perhaps that is because those are the foods that you were introduced to in childhood. What we feed our children influences their tastes and preferences, which they will then carry throughout their lives. We discover their favorite foods, and continue to feed that to them, instead of constantly adding new foods. So maybe the challenge is to try foods, as a family, that may even be new to us.
It can take 8-10 tries for a child to develop a taste for a new food or texture. And what they don’t like at age two, they may love at age five. The trick could be to create meals with foods they love, while introducing new foods to go with them. Challenge their taste buds (as well as your own), and find ways to explore new foods together as a family. Make discovering new foods a family adventure!
Make Mealtime Count
In today’s busy world, finding time to sit down as a family to enjoy a meal can be difficult. But prioritizing mealtime can be a powerful way to impact your child’s eating habits. A meal should be a time to slow down and connect with one another, and to celebrate the nourishment that food gives us. Too often it becomes a stressful battlefield of wills, trying to get a child to eat. Instead, we should focus on modeling the good eating habits we want to see in our child, and avoid the power struggles around food as much as possible.
The most important lesson is to relax. It’s not going to go well at every meal, but celebrate the successes when you can, and don’t sweat the rest.
For more tips, read “So You Want Your Family To Eat Healthy: Here’s Everything You Need To Know” at MindBodyGreen.