So many of my clients ask me for tips on helping their children develop healthy eating habits. It makes sense that this is of such high priority to health conscious parents – if kids start eating well from a young age, it will set a strong foundation for the rest of their lives and will help them avoid many of the diet-related chronic health pitfalls that face us as adults. I don’t claim to have all of the answers (my toddler throws her share of kale against the wall), but I have had some success in introducing vegetables so that they are not the enemy, and are instead an expected and familiar part of each meal. Here are my best tips for creating lasting healthy habits for kids:
- Set a good example – children will look to their parents as role models in many areas of life, including how to eat. If your plate is lacking in green veggies and whole grains, and you often reach for processed convenience foods or animal products, they will mimic your food choices. Pile your plate high with dark leafy greens, whole grains and plant based protein sources and your child will pick up your good habits.
- Start ’em young. Some studies have shown that individual palates and food preferences may be formed in utero, so it’s never too early to start a lifelong love of healthy foods! When you’re pregnant, make sure to eat plenty of cruciferous veggies (kale, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts), drink green smoothies, and lay off the processed, sugary, fatty stuff (I know, it’s hard – pregnancy cravings are real!). Once your little one is born, try and serve mostly healthy things at home – if it’s macaroni and cheese one night, and veggie tofu stir fry the next, they are going to develop a preference for the mac & cheese and scoff when the tofu is placed in front of them. Of course, birthdays, holidays and special occasions might be license for splurgy foods, but the day-to-day stuff should be as healthy as they’ll tolerate. These healthy foods will become their “normal” and they’ll come to expect and enjoy them on a regular basis!
- Avoid refined sugar. Some (well meaning) people may try and make you question your decision to withhold sugar from your child by saying things along the lines of, “He’s just a kid! Let him enjoy dessert.” The truth is, there is zero nutritional benefit from sugar and it’s a seriously destructive force in our overall health, being major contributor of many serious, life threatening illnesses. It’s outright harmful, highly addictive and it has no place in a child’s diet, let alone an adult’s. If you want to make the occasional (and it should be TRULY occasional) exception for birthday cake, Halloween candy and (non dairy) ice cream cones in the summer, OK – but it shouldn’t be a part of their regular diet.
- Keep snacks healthy and whole – meaning, stay away from the pre-packaged convenience snacks. Many of these snacks are organic, “all natural”, and seemingly healthy, but at the end of the day, they are processed. Processed foods usually aren’t filling, can exacerbate cravings, and often contain added sugar and preservatives. Some healthy, portable snacks include apples with nut butter, whole grain crackers with hummus, grapes, homemade trail mix, homemade energy balls, chia pudding, and roasted chickpeas, to name a few.
- Involve your child in meal planning, food selection and preparation. If you show your child that preparing a meal is worthy of time and attention, they’ll see the meal in front of them as an expression of your love. Explain to them why you feel strongly about eating whole, plant based foods and talk to them about their favorite fruits and vegetables. Ask them what their favorite flavors are, and brainstorm meal ideas together. Bring them to the supermarket and farmer’s market and let them help you select ingredients for that week’s meals. Let them stir the pot of soup, sprinkle chopped walnuts on the salad, set the table. Buy them a children’s cookbook and look at recipes together. Let them pick peaches in the summer and apples in the fall and strawberries in late spring. Sit down and eat together, and make family dinner a priority.
photo source: www.inhabitots.com