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Tips for Teaching Healthy Eating Habits to Kids

Tips for Teaching Healthy Eating Habits to Kids

I wrote the article below for my local newspaper just about a year ago. Now that I am due with my second child in a month, I thought it’d be a good time to revisit and remind myself how I handled nursing and planted the seed (if you will) for growing a healthy eater and teaching healthy eating habits. A Bright Horizons parent webinar – Nutrition Tips and Strategies for Growing Healthy Eaters – was also was a trigger for looking back and made me wonder how other parents introduce new foods to their children.

Having a child turned everything I knew about nutrition on its heels. As a cooking instructor for children and a nutrition advisor to parents I thought I had it all figured out.

For over five years, I advised countless parents on how to deal with the pickiest of eaters. I looked skeptical children in the eye and gently encouraged them to taste, and many times enjoy, red peppers. I was realistic in my expectations and supportive of new tasters.

Then I had Olivia.

Little girl eating corn on the cobOlivia was an ounce under 6 pounds at birth. For her first half year in this world I tracked every ounce she gained each week on our nursing chart. I can admit it now. I was slightly, or maybe even more so, obsessed with the growth of my precious firstborn.

Common sense kicked in around seven months when Olivia started solids. Or maybe it was because I went back to teaching and had less time to record every ounce consumed.

Solid food became a fun adventure in “what cool thing could I make that’ll boost Olivia up the food pyramid chart for the day.” I made it. Olivia pretty much ate it all.

Veggie-packed frittatas, hummus, avocado and yogurt puree, bean and veggie quesadillas, pasta with beets and zucchini were just a sampling of her broad palate. She was an even better eater than my husband.

As a health educator, I dreaded what I knew was coming. At about age 2 when children’s growth spurt slows is when picky eating behavior starts to rear its ugly nose. Ahead of schedule, as usual, Olivia started rejecting her favorites as well as mostly everything green a couple months before her second birthday.

I had to reach down deep to take the advice I had dispensed to other harried parents – take a step back, breathe, and repeat “you are doing a great job.”

The single thing most parents worry about is the health of our children. Understandably given the statistics that are out there.

The Center for Disease Control reports that “childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.” The Journal of Pediatrics measured that “in a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”

This rise in obesity is partly due to the increase in production and availability of fast foods and convenience foods. These foods have little to no nutrient value and are filled with preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated fats. Do you know who the recipients of these products’ marketing messages are?

In their book, Lunch Lessons, Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes report that “food companies spend $15 billion per year marketing food to kids.”

The health statistics coupled with an obscene amount of marketing from the opposition and “what Johnny had in his lunch” peer pressure from our children puts lot of strain on a parent. And you know what happens when parents stress about a certain something. Children learn they have some leverage.

A good friend once said, “Children are real good at pushing our buttons because they’re the ones who installed them.”

I didn’t know it at the time but that was some powerful insight, one that I bring to mind when I sense a looming power struggle between mom and child. The most common struggle of course is about eating.

So I inhaled. I exhaled. I repeated “I am doing a great job.” And here is what I did and am still doing to guide my typical preschooler towards healthy eating.

I introduced fruits and vegetables early and often. Sometimes it was just to hold, touch, and explore during the infant and toddler years. Now we visit farm stands, farmers markets, and even plant our own garden. We read books about how vegetables grow and how we grow from vegetables.

I established a meal-time routine. A routine at meals provides a familiar and safe place for trying new foods. I recommend being practical about your family’s schedule. If a dinner routine does not work, establish one at breakfast or lunch. Introduce new foods along with favorites so there are known choices alongside unfamiliar ones.

I give Olivia choices within reason. A few years ago I attended a presentation by a local nutritionist. She said something like “it’s a parent’s job to decide what and the child’s choice to decide how much.” That felt like a good plan to me. I can present local produce and all natural products free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats. And Olivia can decide what in that group she eats. An added benefit is she learns about making smart food choices.

I model a healthy eating balance. My husband and I both have a taste for sweets and don’t deny ourselves a Kimball’s ice cream when the urge arises. We use the opportunity, however, to explain why sweet treats are a sometimes not every time food.

I involve Olivia in the shopping and cooking process. Giving her a vested interest in what we buy and how it’s made helps Olivia be a more adventuresome eater. I recommend considering tasks appropriate for your child’s age and ability as well as the time you have to oversee the process. Rushing through the store or squeezing in cooking can only lead to frustration. If I don’t have the time, I pop on the television and do it myself.

We still have our good days when I spy Olivia sneaking fresh tomatoes from our CSA share and not so good days when pasta and butter are ordered in every restaurant. But I try not to worry anymore and no longer know exactly what Olivia weighs.


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