What you eat, how you eat and why you eat what you do is really important because children are keen observers who absorb everything you do. Think of them as sponges soaking in all the details from their parents.
Eating wholesome meals is more than modeling sound nutrition; it is about fostering family unity, connectedness, ritual and identity as a group.
Children, even more than adults, enjoy and require routine. Studies show the family who eats together, stays together. Adolescents are less prone to risky behavior, disordered eating, drug and alcohol abuse and tend to be better socially adjusted when they have a table filled with family or community to sit at and share meals with. Instill the following in your household to ensure the best for your children, and YOU!
- Set realistic boundaries about food choices and mealtimes. Ellyn Satter is a pioneer in feeding the family and raising competent young eaters. Her most acclaimed work set the standard for the division of responsibility around mealtimes. Next time your picky eater is giving you trouble, keep this mind: You provide the what, where, and when and your child decides the if and how much.
- Always provide at least one high quality food you trust is healthy, but enjoyed by your child. You are in charge of deciding what, but remember, your child can decide how much or not to eat at all. It is okay if at first your child only eats a little bit of one food, he or she will eventually become hungry for change and ask to try what you are having.
- Keep in mind that it takes younger taste buds numerous times to taste something new before really deciding whether or not they like it. Be sure to offer your child a disliked food several times and in different recipes to give them an opportunity to keep trying.
- Make mealtimes pleasant, relaxed, and fun. Meals are a time to commune as a family. Engage your child in conversation and keep the energy light and positive. Stress is neither healthy nor productive for optimal digestion, absorption, or metabolism.
- Do not use food to punish, restrict, or even reward! Food is nourishing information for all the cells that make up your child’s body. Teach him or her from an early age to have a healthy relationship with food by not associating it with positive or negative reinforcement parenting. Instead, use games or something non-food related to use as a reward for good behavior.
- Know when to be the parent and enforce healthy eating. For example, holidays, birthdays, or stressful times like when your kid is sick can make it difficult to know what boundaries to establish. When a child is sick, be a parent and keep all sugar and junk food away even if this is a struggle. When they are healthy, they will thank you and, more importantly, trust you.
- When there is a birthday or festivity, be celebratory and flexible, but have a plan. For instance, on birthdays give your child a choice between two whole food-based treats and have them choose one. For example, ask your child which meal of the day they want to be their special birthday meal. Make it clear that birthdays aren’t excuses to binge on sugar and abandon healthy eating–in fact, it is a day to honor their life and celebrate good health! If your child loves pancakes, start their day by making a healthier version such as my Soy-Nut Pancakes with Strawberry-Banana Sauce or make your own pancakes using lower glycemic almond flour and your child’s favorite berry. Again, kids like boundaries and sometimes too many choices can overwhelm the young eater. Keep it simple!
- Other ideas include making your own birthday dessert instead of buying store-made options, which usually have disease-causing ingredients. In my family, we like to be creative and use tofu or avocado to make the base of a mousse or “fudge.” The special birthday person gets to decide toppings such as cacao, shredded coconut, berries, antioxidant-rich pomegranate powder, or crunchy nuts. It’s fun to start traditions the whole family can look forward to!
- If it's a holiday and you're wondering how to contain eating without letting the myriad holiday fare overwhelm you and your child, discuss the meaning of the holiday and make it a point to focus on the greater purpose of coming together. Involve your child in food preparation and have them menu plan, shop and cook with you. Participating in meal preparation breeds respect for the hard work involved and is an excellent way to get your child to develop an interest in healthier eating. For example, as you decide between squash or yams for Thanksgiving, you can also teach them about selecting vitamin-rich squash or sweet potato as smart carbohydrate options. You can also discuss why only one starch is necessary before moving on to select perhaps another low glycemic carbohydrate-based side dish such as quinoa or pilaf. When you make your child a part of the festivities, they proactively learn about eating well in a way that encourages bonding and fun without having to be lectured at or embarrassed later.
- Most of all, trust your young child to be naturally attuned to their hunger and satiety levels. When a child is provided real, whole foods, unadulterated with sugar, poor quality fats, toxic additives and food dyes, their body knows exactly what to eat and how much. They will eat just what their growing body needs when provided this high quality diet that their DNA evolved from. Over a few days, or even a week in certain cases, children will eat every type of food and receive proper nutrition if we do our part as parents. They know exactly what foods to eat when we don’t sabotage their natural instincts with candy or processed and convenient junk foods! Remember, adults aren’t the only ones whose brain can become hijacked by sugar, salt and fat!