Raising healthy eaters. We all want to do it, but sometimes, it seems like an elusive task despite our best efforts. Here’s what we’ve learned about raising healthy eaters.
As parents, feeding our children is one of the main aspects of our caretaking, and of course, we want to do it right. Unfortunately, what should be a simple and pleasant task can turn into a confusing experience. Advice from nutrition experts can be conflicting, and the food industry adds a whole other twist to the situation. I have seen many well-meaning parents get so caught up in the do-this and don’t-do-thats of what is supposedly “good” or “bad” that the simple pleasure of sharing a meal with their children disappears. Instead, mealtimes become a source of stress for the family. What is a parent to do? How can we go about raising healthy eaters without destroying family bond of the meal?
I’d like to invite you to take a step back, and keep the end goal in mind: raising healthy eaters . When we look at that as the light at the end of the tunnel, we can take a holistic and pragmatic approach.
First, let’s define a healthy eater. She (or he) is a person who has a positive and sound relationship with food and eating. She knows that eating is one life’s daily activities because food is fuel for our bodies. But it’s also one of life’s pleasures so she doesn’t obsess about it. She enjoys eating, and is conscious of what she chooses to eat, and why. She pays attention to how much she eats, listening to her body’s hunger and satiety cues, thus she eats the right amount for her own body’s needs. She eats many different foods, and likes trying new ones. She knows how to plan meals, and shop for food. She sees cooking as in integral part of good fueling her body and therefore, goodeating, and has the skills to cook real meals.
How do you raise a healthy eater?
So, how do you raise a child with that mindset?
First, by remembering that feeding your children well is about much more than specific nutrients. Don’t get caught up in the hype of the newest kid-friendly products. Your children can, and should be expected to eat what you eat. Understand that your children need time to develop their tastes, and that just because they don’t like a new food the first time, you will offer that food again (and again and again…up to 11 times is what is recommended to establish valid dislikes and likes). A variety of good, wholesome real food is ideally the basis for what you offer them. Help them to see food as natural and clean food, not as a package on the shelf. Visit the farmer’s market or start a little garden with them, giving them the opportunity to see the miracle of where the food comes from, and to taste it fresh off the plant.
Second, and equally as important as what you feed them, is how you feed them. The food environment is powerful. A positive atmosphere around food and eating will go a long way towards guiding your children into developing a positive relationship with food. Good feeding includes having family meals as often as possible, and minimizing the times you plunk your children down (in front of the television) with a snack while you finish up your chores. We know, we know…it’s hard sometimes because you feel like you’re always on to the next thing on your to-do list. But, this is important and it goes with expectations that go along with your children’s stage of development.
Yes, you may be able to have longer pleasant conversations at the table with your school-aged child, but you may need to stay calm when your little one is wiggly and you must excuse him from the table after only ten minutes. Good feeding is also about trusting that your children will eat as much as they need for their body, not forcing them to eat “just three more bites” or refusing them second helpings because you think they have eaten enough. Help them to learn to listen to their bodies’ internal cues of hunger and satiety. Be a good role model, and eat with pleasure and purpose.
Nurturing a good relationship with food is also about finding creative ways to discipline and reward, other than with using food. Poor behavior does not merit having dessert withheld, and good behavior is not rewarded with candy. Please, please, please do not reinforce those concepts.
Raising healthy eaters includes sharing the joys, and messes, of cooking with your children. Invite them into the kitchen so they see, touch, and smell what goes into a good meal. They will gain skills that will last a lifetime, and their self-esteem will get a boost as the see their wonderful creations on the table for the family to enjoy. It’s okay if the recipe doesn’t turn out as you thought it would; cooking is lots of experimentation anyway. But when you let your children take part in their own meals, they’ll have ownership. This will encourage them more than you can imagine, especially if you start letting them help when they’re young and willing to try new things because they’ve not established preconceived notions yet.
Raising healthy eaters is about offering more than just nutrients and food. Good feeding leads to good eating, and good eating is a wonderful pleasure in life. Feeding our children is about nourishment, relationship, communication and community. Dial down the stress, and just enjoy eating with your children- you will be giving them a precious gift.
Photo: Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock