Make no mistake about it, getting your kids to eat healthfully isn’t always the easiest task. You often slave over a hot stove for hours only to be met with whines and groans of disapproval as you serve up their veggie-loaded dinner. You stand by watching in horror as the snack mom hands your child a pack of Gushers fruit snacks and a Kool-Aid after tee ball (or is that just me??). You suffer through their Halloween hangovers every. single. November 1st. I feel ya – this is a trying time, I know! I’m living it as we speak.
I grew up the daughter of a dietitian. As a kid, this was the kiss of death. It meant no sugary cereals, no Cheetos, no Chips Ahoy, none of those pudding packs my friends were always packin’ in their school lunches. I was deprived of all of this junky goodness. I was so desperate for junk food that I used to resort to going door-to-door to all my neighbors’ houses, pretending that I was on a scavenger hunt. Miraculously, most of the items on my list just happened to be cookies and candy and chips…plus I threw a few randoms in there like paper clips and pencils, just to make it look more legit. Mama may have raised a junk-free kid, but she didn’t raise no fool.
Fast-forward to the start of my own motherhood. Luckily, the healthy habits my mom instilled in me from early childhood survived even my teen and college years, carrying me straight through into adulthood and this often terrifying new adventure called parenting. When my oldest, Jack, was just 5 months old, we entered an even more terrifying chapter after he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. With no definitive answers from his doctors, and after a few hospitalizations, bone-marrow testing and thrice-weekly blood tests, I started tirelessly researching what’s in our food. I was a mama bear on a mission.
Our eating habits were pretty great, but there were things here and there I knew could be better. I cut out anything processed, including all those little super-convenient prepackaged toddler snacks, I switched to all-organic foods, and I nixed any household cleaning product that wasn’t all-natural. Within months, Jack’s disorder cleared up. The whole ordeal served as a huge reminder of the raw power of whole, healthy foods, and the importance of the healthful eating habits my mother had programmed into me as a kid. I knew then and there, without a doubt, that this would be the biggest, most important gift I could ever pass on to my babies.
Here are my top 3 tips for instilling healthy eating habits in your kids:
- Set an example: Monkey see, monkey do. Kids learn soooo much more from watching you than they ever do from listening to you (I think my boys may actually even have an implant in their ears that filters out my voice…unless I’m using the words “iPad” or “cookie”, I’m looking into it.), so setting a good example by filling your own plate, as well as theirs, with lots of fruits and veggies and lean proteins and whole grains and healthy fats, is huge. When your kiddos see a rainbow of healthy foods on the dinner table day in and day out, they’ll be much more likely to choose those foods themselves later on. It just becomes second nature, which is exactly what you want…for your will to be forced upon them without them even realizing it. Jackpot. [How I do] I use a salad-sized plate for proper portioning, then I always fill half our plates with veggies and fruits, about a quarter of the plates with a lean protein like fish or chicken, and the remaining quarter with a starchy veggie (like a potato) or whole grain (like quinoa or brown rice). Dinner is the same for everyone – no special orders. If they don’t like it, they don’t eat.
- Start ‘em young: You’ve got four or five years max to get your kids hooked on fruits and veggies before they start school and venture out into the dark side, that vast world of fried school-cafeteria food and play-date treats and birthday-party goody bags, so it’s imperative that you use that precious brainwashing time wisely. If you fill those early years with nothing other than mac + cheese and chicken nuggets and french fries and soda and candy, it’s going to be a MUCH longer road to get them where they need to be nutritionally in order to thrive. The occasional slice of birthday cake or bowl of mac is fine, but they should be considered rare treats, not the basis of their diets. Giving them a natural taste and preference for fresh, whole foods early on will set them up for life. I should know, I’m walking proof that this experiment really works. [How I do] I started all three of my boys on fresh fruits and veggies as soon as I intro’ed solids into their diets, so around 4(ish) months old. Mashed banana, mashed avocado, pureed squash and sweet potato, little green beans and peas to snack on, and I worked my way up from there. Consequently, they’ve all grown up with a taste for real, whole foods. Will they still devour a cookie like little rabid animals? Of course. But they will also do some maaaaajor damage to a veggie tray because of the fact that I programmed these habits into them from birth.
- Get them in the kitchen: To this day, one of my absolute favorite memories of childhood is sitting on the countertop sniffing all the different spices as my mom cooked dinner. She always encouraged me to cook my own little meals and make my own healthy lunches to take to school (her tactic: we could either use our weekly allowance moolah to buy lunch at school, OR save the money and make our own lunches at home). Because I was always the master of my lunch destiny, having chosen and assembled everything myself, I was less likely to turn my nose up at my lunchbox come lunchtime. There was a sense of pride involved, which was a stroke of genius on my mom’s part since kids are suuuuuuper ego driven. [How I do] I not only have my boys make their own lunches, I also involve them heavily in the grocery-shopping. I’m in complete control of the grocery list, so I know that everything in our cart (and thus our kitchen) will be healthy, but they feel a sense of independence in getting to pick out the kale and choosing which dried fruit to put in their lunchbox. And I think it’s pretty clutch that my 7-year-old knows how to choose a good avocado. They also love helping with the veggie garden. There hasn’t been one thing yet that they’ve helped grow that they wouldn’t then eat.
I know it’s not always easy, and it won’t always be perfect. There will be days when you literally can’t muster much more than scrambling up some eggs and calling it a night. But trust me, kids are like credit cards – you either pay now, or you will be paying later…with interest. Ya gotta start somewhere. Why not here??
How do you encourage healthy eating habits in your kids? Don’t keep those secrets to yourself, share in the comments!! Help a mama (or daddy) out!