Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Kid Factor

At the beginning of this month my husband and I took the kids to Sweet Tomato.  While we were eating our salads, another family sat down a few tables away from us.  I glanced over and noticed the little boy who looked to be about four had cracker-type food and raisins on his plate. Then they brought the girl a plate stacked full of bread sticks.  I'm not going to lie to you; I totally judged.  And I really have no room to do so as this morning I consumed a large piece of cake brought to me by one of my students, and just now I finished a slice of apple pie which was purchased from Kroger and contains who knows what. I didn't read the label.  

Judgement aside, I think too easily we as parents (myself included) can fall into the I'm-afraid-my-kid-will-starve-if-he-doesn't-eat-something-so-let's-just-give-him-whatever-he-will-swallow trap.  The truth is that not all foods are created equal and eating "something" is not better than missing a meal because the child doesn't want the healthy options.  I promise you, your child will not die if they occasionally miss a meal, and their bodies are programmed not to let them starve.  

Let me say this as gently as possible: children eat what we give them and teach them to eat.  Children in every country of the world eat the food that is typical of their culture.  I know as a parent it can be difficult and emotional to deal with children's eating habits.  I've outlined some ideas that have worked with my children and maybe can help you in your journey with your children to healthier eating habits.  (As always, if your child has a medical condition, follow the advice of your pediatrician before making changes to their diet.)

Get them involved
Kids love to imitate adults, and are more likely to eat foods that they have helped to make.  Give your little "chef" jobs like tearing up the lettuce for the salad and measuring ingredients.  As they get older, teach them cooking skills so they can take responsibility for themselves and won't be helpless when they leave home.  If you have a garden, get them involved in planting seeds and watering plants.  Eating snap peas straight of the vine is a special treat.

Relinquish control
Yes, you read that right.  This is one of the most successful strategies I have used with my kids.  As an adult I don't want someone just plopping food on my plate and saying, "Eat this."  Children want choices, too.  One of the favorite meals in our house is "make your own salad night."  Everyone starts with lettuce, and the kids get to pick what they want to add.  Here are some other examples of how this works:

For snack: "Would you like an apple or grapes?"
When serving food: "Do you want a little salad or a lot of salad?" "Do you want your chicken on your rice or on the side?"

Be an example
If it's not a food you want your kids to eat, don't keep it in the house.  If it's a "sometimes" food, only eat it sometimes.  Rest assured that if you aren't eating to the same standards that you want your kids to have, they will call the "that's not fair" card. (And they will likely want to scarf down those forbidden foods as adults in righteous vindication.)

Dealing with picky eaters
Allow your kids to have dislikes in foods.  One of ours doesn't like yogurt and another doesn't like beans.  We don't make them a separate dish, but there are other foods served with the meal that they can eat.  However, in our house the rule is you can have seconds when you've had firsts of everything.  If we know it's a food they're not particularly fond of those "firsts" are a small portion.  This is normally met with complaints at first, but now our kids know the way it works.  And over time, we have seen them grow to like foods that they objected to at first.

Making changes is difficult at first.  Changes also take time.  What we've seen as a result, though, is that our kids love real food. They ask if our food is homemade or if it came from our garden.  They want to know if the meat and dairy came from the farm.  And they get excited about it. We've also noticed that eating real food improves their health and their mood.

One important note is that we don't force our kids to eat or eat a particular food.  As parents we can no more force our children to eat something than we can grow wings and fly.  What we can control is what food is available for them to choose from. 

What has worked for you with your kids?

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