How do we teach our kids to eat healthy food?
This is the question my friend, Wendie, asked me last night, when I bumped into her at Trader Joe’s.
She had that look on her face. The same one I see on soooooo many parents’ face. The look that tells me that she that she has tried everything she can think of, to get her kids to make healthy choices, but their diet still isn’t as nutritious as she wants it to be.
I wanted to tell Wendie that it’s easy. That if she just does this, this, or this, her kids will love healthy foods.
But it doesn’t work that way, does it? It’s hard to teach our kids to choose carrots instead of french fries, and chill out on the soda and candy.
The better question is WHY is it hard to teach our kids to eat healthy foods?
Is it because kids don’t want to learn? I don’t think so. I think kids know that knowledge is power. That’s why they ask so many questions.
“Mommy, why is the sky blue?”
“Why is it dark at night?”
“How do birds fly?”
Have you noticed how relieved they seem when you give them an answer they understand?
Is it because fruits and vegetables don’t taste as good as processed foods? Not really. The reason kids don’t appreciate fresh produce as much as processed foods is more from lack of exposure, and dulled taste buds, then it is about taste. The more our bodies experience any food–healthy or not–the more we crave it.
Could it be that kids don’t want to be healthy? Hmmm…I don’t really think that’s it either. Do you?
Personally, I think it’s hard to teach kids to eat healthy because, no matter how much we work to teach them about nutrition, there will always be other forces in their life that suggest otherwise.
Their friends tell them that veggies aren’t cool. Coaches tell them they need Gatorade to rehydrate. And candy is almost always the reward for good behavior at school.
It’s no wonder our kids are confused!
Because there are so many mixed messages, I think the only way to teach kids to eat healthy is to be the change we want to see in our kids. We have to be crazy healthy ourselves, and teach them that wellness is normal, and everything else is not.
Kids need consistent encouragement and education about what it takes to be healthy. Not in an obsessive, overbearing way. But in a “this is what we do, and I love it!” kind of way. If we arm our kids with information when they are young, about the ways foods either fuel or harm our body, they will empowered to make informed decisions about their health now, and for the rest of their lives.
But what if our kids are older? Is it too late to teach them good habits? I don’t think so. I first embraced whole food nutrition in my thirties, so I am pretty sure that people can learn to love healthy food at any age, with the right attitude, commitment, and mentorship.
As parents, we are those mentors for our kids, so we have to be stronger than they are. That’s not easy, but I promise it’s always worth it!
Oh, and, by the way, I have found that my kids are more receptive when I make it less about them doing what I want them to do, and more about doing the right thing.
So…how do we teach our kids to eat healthy food?
Do you remember the 4 A’s of getting healthy from my recent post, The Naked Truth? The strategy is almost the same for kids, with a few modifications. Here are the 4 A’s for teaching kids to be crazy healthy:
1) Keep a positive attitude: Kids read us like an open book. If we are unsure of ourselves, doubt our choices, or act discouraged, they will pick up on it. This is why it’s essential to trust the struggle, and always believe that our efforts are making an impact. We may not see results immediately, but there will be a progression over time. And, in the process, we are arming them with information, and experiences, that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
2) Make healthy foods accessible (and simple): Keep tons of fresh produce, nuts, seeds, trail mixes, juices, nut butters, and frozen produce and canned soups on hand. Try to serve produce in its purest forms, without sauces and spices, so they can learn to appreciate what they really taste like. Chop fruits and veggies before they get home from school, and set out snacks before they ask for them. The less you say the better–I have found that my kids will eat almost anything I leave on the table! Also, don’t buy the foods you don’t want your kids to eat, and don’t let them see you eating foods you want to keep out of their diet. Eat tons of nutrient-dense foods yourself, so they know that this is what is “normal” for your family. And make sure they know how much you love the healthy stuff!
3) Cultivate awareness: Educate yourself, and your children, about the power of nutrient-dense foods (Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman is a great place to start!). Give them a project that they can research on the Internet. Our favorite is called “Four Sqaure”: have kids divide a sheet of paper into four equal boxes, and ask them to draw and describe a fruit or vegetable in each box. Descriptions can include nutritional benefits (is it anti-inflammatory? does it boost immunity?), vitamins and minerals, where it grows, and how it tastes. They could do this every week for a year, before they would run out of fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds and legumes to research! Also, talk about the foods you serve for dinner. Ask kids about the benefits of the carrots in their soup, and what vitamins are in their broccoli. Look it up together if they don’t know!
4) Encourage fun, healthy actions: This is the hardest one for me, because we are so stinkin’ busy all the time. I have found, however, that giving my kids dedicated time to “play” in the kitchen makes them more enthusiastic about healthy food. They like to make their own trail mixes, popsicles, smoothies, and dips. We also recently experimented with sparkling water and pure juices, to make healthy “sodas”. And, of course, they love to help me cook! Additionally, I think it’s important to take kids grocery shopping every now and then, and encourage them to explore the produce aisle for foods they haven’t tried before. Teach them to read labels, and only put something in the cart if it’s healthy. The way I see it, the more positive experiences kids have with healthy food, the more willing they will be to embrace the crazy healthy lifestyle.
Teaching kids to be healthy is a lot of work, and a bit of a faith walk. It’s essential to let go of expectation, and trust the struggle. Be sure of what you believe and be consistent in your actions. And always remember that, even if our kids don’t react the way we want them to now, they will always remember that Mom and Dad cared enough to make healthy eating a family value.
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