As a parent, you wear many hats: teacher, chauffeur, scheduler, nurse, disciplinarian. You also wear the chef’s hat – or at the very least, you buy the groceries and put together something that passes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whether you grew up on Velveeta or wheat germ, you have a history with food, and that history probably influences your personal preferences now. So it’s important to know that how and what you choose to eat matters to your kids. They’re watching, and emulating what you do – and what you eat.
Here are some simple steps to help you put healthy foods on the table and encourage health eating habits. Cooking – and eating – by example are the best ways to serve up success.
Sit down together. Eating at the table, together, can help bring a sense of calm and stability to your children’s day, as well as your own. Whether you’re debating politics or your favorite picture book character, it’s healthy to engage in conversation at the table. (Don’t forget to turn off the TV at mealtime.) Eating together also is an opportunity to demonstrate good manners – from saying please and thank you to practicing the art of listening and taking turns speaking. While mealtime is just one component of an overall healthy family life, multiple studies report that children who dine regularly with family members are more likely to choose healthy foods and are less likely to be overweight or develop eating disorders.
Invite your children into the kitchen. Young children, especially, enjoy creating and experimenting. Encourage the budding chefs in your family. Letting them help prepare something may add a wonderful flavor of accomplishment to your children’s meal. Plus, some children are more likely to try a new food if they’ve helped prepare it. And if they don’t like to cook, they can always help with the dishes.
Don’t throw the Brussels sprouts out with the dishwater. Multiple studies have reported that kids can be exposed to a food between 10 and 20 times before they’ll try it. And after they finally try it? It may take another 10 to 20 times before they decide whether it’s to their liking. If you’ve served carrots or kale and have received a tepid response, don’t cross them off your list just yet. Have patience; your kids may surprise you.
Go green. Study after study sings the praises of green vegetables. From romaine to string beans to broccoli, going green has numerous health benefits. It’s fine to enjoy your starchy veggies, but be sure to introduce greens to your table, too. It may take a while for your kids to warm up to whatever you’re serving, so mix it up as you go. The more you make green vegetables a natural part of your meals, the more likely your children will be to carry that tradition into their adult lives.
Don’t force or restrict. Forcing a child to eat something usually generates bad feelings about that particular food. Forbidding certain foods, on the other hand, makes them more appealing. Focusing excessively on excluding a certain food in your child’s diet (or yours) can cause undue preoccupation with that food. Moderation – though you may be tired of hearing it – is the key to a healthy relationship with food.
Don’t use mealtime to discipline kids or discuss unpleasant topics. Table these issues for a later discussion. Mealtime conversation doesn’t have to be upbeat – maybe a family member experienced something painful, and talking about helps everyone feel supportive and supported. Let the conversation take its course, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be discouraged by long pauses or one-word answers to questions; if family mealtime hasn’t been a regular occurrence at your house, it may take a while to develop a dining rhythm.
Take your time. Younger children may require more time to eat. They may want to examine, play and add a side of silly to their plates. It’s OK to let them investigate the color, shape, taste and texture of their food – within reason. Eating at a pace that’s comfortable for them gives them the opportunity to figure out when they’re truly full – a habit worth cultivating for life.
Just add water. What’s your beverage of choice at dinner time? Consider trading your family’s fruit drinks, juices and sodas for water. If your kids are looking for something with a little more kick, consider adding fresh fruit – such as lemon or orange slices, or even strawberries – to plain or carbonated (sparkling) water. Low-fat milk also is a reasonable accompaniment to meals.
Offer choices. Not all children will eat everything at the table. Even you may want to skip some part of what you’ve prepared, so don’t expect your kids to eat everything, either. This doesn’t mean you should slave over two main courses or act like a short-order cook. But offering choices – such as a meat, starch, green vegetable and fruit – may help your pickiest eaters find something agreeable to eat, and can help everyone feel more satisfied.
Don’t use dessert as a reward or punishment. Kids should make an earnest attempt to eat their food at dinnertime, but it’s not necessary to make them finish every last morsel on their plate to qualify for dessert. Instead of thinking of it as a reward, think of it as the end portion of the meal. Using dessert as a reward sends the message that everything that came before wasn’t quite as exciting. And while this may be true in some cases, it’s better to let your children assign their own value to what they enjoy eating. With so much childhood obesity these days, using dessert as a reward – and withholding it as a punishment – may work against you, and your children, in the long term.
Keep it simple. Not a gourmet cook? Not even close? You can still pack a lot of nutrition and great modeling into your mealtimes with simple but smart choices: cut-up fresh vegetables, bowls of fresh fruit, wraps made with last night’s leftover grilled chicken, or any kind of kebab – fruit, meat, veggie or a little of each. Fretting about how to prep dinner in the time between school pickup and soccer drop-off? Pack a picnic of sandwiches, baby carrots and fruit, or whip up some eggs, which pack plenty of nutritional value. You’ll feel better about yourself – and about what your kids are eating – than if you had taken them to the drive-thru.
Don’t try to be perfect. No one can manage all the variables of life and always bring the family together for a healthy, well-balanced meal. Strive for progress, not perfection. Do what you can to bring nutritional value to your table, and don’t beat yourself up when your food choices are less than ideal.