When I was a kid, I hated vegetables. I have very distinct memories of my mother encouraging me to try everything on my plate. Every night, I was always the last one at the table, pushing those vegetables around long after everyone else had moved into the living room.
• Offer choices. Kids want autonomy. Give them a chance to exercise their independence by letting them choose a snack among several healthy options.
• Snack smarter. The same principle applies from toddlers to teenagers: Foods rich in fiber and protein will keep them full longer. Nuts, apple slices with peanut butter, hummus, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and a variety of fruits and cut-up veggies are good to keep on hand.
• Food sourcing. Teach kids where food comes from. If you have a backyard, start a garden. Or take them to a community garden, a pick-your-own orchard or the farmers market. The more they’re in touch with the origins of their food, the more likely they’ll feel invested in healthy eating.
• Find the joy in food. Eating is one of the most pleasurable things we do as humans, and it’s important for kids to form a healthy relationship with food. Help provide them with a solid understanding of nutrition, along with positive associations through meaningful family meals.
• Get them into the kitchen. Sure, the mess potential is huge with young children, but they’ll get better as they get older. Learning how to cook can be an invaluable life skill.
It wasn’t until I lived on my own in college that I “discovered” vegetables. I was eating broccoli when I had my aha moment, and I immediately regretted wasting the previous 18 years avoiding veggies. Today, I’ll eat any kind of vegetable, and every time I do, I am thankful my mother planted that seed in my brain, even though it took a long time for it to come to fruition.
Nutrition shouldn’t be a fraught topic to discuss with your children. Summer is here, and without the distraction of school, it’s the perfect time to teach them about healthful eating. It all begins at the dinner table, says Cheryl Kapalka, the clinical nutrition manager at Sunrise Hospital. “The best thing is to have structured meal times, which I’ve found a lot of families don’t. And kids are going to eat what their parents are eating, so it’s important to have balanced meals.”
Kapalka acknowledges that might not always be feasible for busy families, but there are other ways to get kids involved, like taking them to the grocery store and having them help plan out meals. For parents of younger kids, it could mean more work, but instilling these habits now will pay off for a lifetime. A trip to the grocery store—or a farmers market if it’s accessible—can be an incredible teaching opportunity. Kids can learn about fresh food versus processed food, and parents can guide them on making sound nutritional choices.
Just as important as what kids eat is how they eat. Food shouldn’t be used as a system of reward or punishment. We’re all born with an innate ability to eat what we need for energy, and if we listen to our bodies, it tells us when we’ve reached the point of satiety. Punishing kids for not finishing everything on their plate can backfire, and so can using food as an incentive. In fact, there’s a growing body of research that says allowing kids to self-regulate their appetites can help reduce obesity, so listen to their cues. The love of food “should come naturally,” Kapalka says. “Your child will eventually come around.”
And for parents with picky eaters? The trick is to keep on trying. “All the evidence says that you should just keep reintroducing foods. Don’t force [it on] them, but you want to have it available. The more times they see it, then the more likely they are to eat it,” Kapalka says.
Introducing new foods is important for expanding the palate of picky eaters. If your kids like potatoes, offer sweet potatoes, then move on to squashes. Accessibility is also key. To get her own kids, who are in middle school, to eat fruit, Kapalka makes sure there are cut-up apples within reach in the refrigerator. And she also gives them things that might be unfamiliar, like pomegranates. It always surprises her what they’ll end up enjoying.
Educating your kids about proper nutrition is as much about what you don’t say as what you do. How you stock your fridge and pantry is the nonverbal way you communicate to your kids how you feel about food, and you can steer them to healthier habits simply by limiting foods that aren’t as nutritionally desirable. Consciously or not, they’ll adopt your eating habits, too. Therefore, how you care for yourself is the most significant variable in their future choices.
“You have to make an effort to model [healthy] behavior,” Kapalka says. “Because it’s definitely a lifetime habit.”
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.