Navigating the difficult, sometimes impossible-seeming waters of feeding our kids is one of the many great parenting challenges we all must learn to tackle. I add it to the list of the many lofty goals we undertake, which might include healthy sleep habits, independence, emotional intelligence and regulation, a love of learning, and good hygiene, to name a few. Like all of these important values we try to bestow upon our children, teaching our children to value healthy food is not the path of least resistance. While it can be incredibly challenging, I do believe this life skill is a worthy investment of our time and resources.
Research continues to demonstrate that early food experiences and feeding strategies with children will lay the groundwork for a lifetime of food preferences, behaviors, and health. Wherever you are in your family’s journey, it is never too late to take small steps in the right direction to create positive habits. Here are a few clean eating steps you can take with your family starting right now.
Model the habits you want to see.
If we want our children to take care of their bodies, we must show them that we value ours. Often our child is modeling the behaviors they see in us. If we hope they will prioritize whole foods, we must also eat these whole foods throughout the day. If we want them to have body confidence, we must articulate to them how much we love our own bodies. As parents, we hope our child finds a great balance between nourishing foods and foods that provide less nutritional balance. We must consider how to demonstrate this balance ourselves, as parents—we must model the habits we hope to cultivate in our child.
Clean out the pantry, because all snacks are not created equal.
Often parents are incredibly focused on getting it right at mealtime, but snack time can fall short. The standard American diet for a child often relies on salty, crunchy, or sugary snack foods between meals. There is a time and place for these convenience store foods, but can you reduce your reliance on them? Can you look in your pantry or think about the food you are buying that is sabotaging your child’s ability to make healthier choices? Is there a box of crunchy crackers or sugary cookies that have become their go-to snack, and at times it is hard to convince them to consider anything else? Why not just skip putting this in your cart on your next trip to the grocery store?
Your child can thrive without these distracting foods. Often as parents remove these types of foods from their home, their child naturally becomes drawn to healthier foods. It is much easier to convince a child to eat the important meals of the day when there are not distracting snacks around the corner. For an older child, you can have a discussion and include them in this process.
What if we stop calling our children "picky eaters"?
I am a parent of a very discerning 4-year-old and a sometimes flexible 6½-year-old. I try not to use the term "picky eater" to describe my children or other children. This does not imply that my children do not at times exhibit the common qualities attributed to "picky eaters." I understand why we all use it, as it's a phrase that instantly helps us paint a clear picture of our children's food relationship. I will write about it from time to time as it's a parenting challenge many want to overcome, but I try not to apply this label to my children or other children (especially in their presence).
At times this label can be instantly limiting and can send a clear signal of our low expectations for our children's relationship with food. As parents we are often so thoughtful about not placing limiting labels on our child, and when it comes to their relationship with food, we should consider doing the same. Are we ready to wave the white flag that gives a child permission to be afraid of new foods and a free pass to avoid the unfamiliar indefinitely?
Instead, we can see their relationship with food as constantly evolving. Anyone who has met a toddler and/or a young child knows how preferences can change frequently. There are children who are clinically labeled as severe picky eaters or extreme picky eaters who are not meeting their developmental markers, and in those cases, I highly recommend parents seek out additional support through a nutritionist, feeding therapist, or a pediatrician.
Find more time to cook with your kids.
Playing with and preparing food is how a child can build a deeper connection to healthy food. I am a firm believer that it is OK for a kid to get a little silly with the food on their plate as they debate eating it. Infants learn to eat by manipulating food around their high chairs, which can be considered a form of playing.
Cooking with kids allows them to understand how the food ends up on the table. Participating in the process means they are more likely to taste or try new foods. Spending time in the kitchen will allow a child to gain skills that can teach them to fuel their health for a lifetime. Much of the work in the kitchen can be an engaging sensory activity and strengthen fine motor skills while helping you get a meal on the table. Most importantly, it can allow a child to gain a sense of confidence and accomplishment. Cooking with a preschooler can really slow you down, but you know what they say: It's about the journey, not the destination.
Let your kids peel the greens off the kale; wash the vegetables or fruit; use a kid-friendly knife to cut, mix, and crack the eggs; fill and turn on the blender for the weekend smoothie; add oil to a bowl of vegetables; salt and pepper the vegetables; and so on. As they get older, their skills will develop and become more useful to your meal prep.
Expose your child to a variety of new foods.
What we feed our child influences their preferences. We as parents often work so hard to prepare and discover our child’s favorite food, but what we don't understand is that what we expose a child to is helping them experience a range of flavors and textures to shape their taste preferences. It can take as many as eight or 10 exposures for a child to accept a new food. As parents, we must stay the course and not give up too soon.
Creating meals with their food preferences in mind while continuing to challenge their taste buds will lead them to eat a wider variety of food. Find ways to make exploring new foods a part of your family routine. Celebrate your child’s willingness to taste new foods. Find ways to make trying new foods creative and playful. Demonstrate your willingness to be adventurous as a family.
Make time for family meals.
Finding room in your family's busy schedule to prioritize meals together can be an empowering way to make shifts in your child’s eating habits. Family meals can place emphasis on slowing down, showing gratitude for the role food plays in nourishing our bodies, and connecting with your child. In some homes, mealtime can feel incredibly stressful for families concerned about their child’s eating habits, but it doesn't have to be. Try using this time sitting together to just enjoy your family as much as possible. Focus on modeling the eating behaviors you want to see and avoid engaging in power struggles as much as possible.
Most importantly, relax. Celebrate your successes, and remember that as parents, we are not going to get it right all the time. We are all a work in progress.
Want more ideas for how to get your family to eat healthy? Here are a few.
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