These days, when children’s eating habits have led to an increase in obesity, parents’ responsibility to raise food-smart children has increased too.
It is the quality or the nutrition in the food we give our kids, coupled with the teaching of good habits, that will determine our kids’ health as children and later as grownups.
When people reach a health crisis due to unhealthy eating habits, they usually make the right changes, but then it is very hard to change habits that are already part of a daily routine. This is why people fall in the cycle of “Yo-yo diets” and loss of motivation. If you want to help your children, think ahead and make sure they never reach this point of having to change unhealthy habits.
Parents are the role model for most kid behaviors. If a mother diets, her daughters will diet even if they are underweight. Therefore, if we want to help kids with smart choices about food, parents are the first place to start.
Here are some practical tips on how to model food-smart habits and ensure your kids spend time, energy, money and effort maintaining their health:
- Have family meals together. Even if this is technically hard, make sure you do this at least some evenings every week. Work around everyone’s timetable and have “together time”. Meals play an important social role that kids miss when they eat by themselves. If they do not eat together, they will tend to grab something and eat to make it easy, which is how fast food becomes the norm.
- When you eat – eat. Make sure eating is done with no TV, radio or music to allow conversation and social interaction. Paying attention to what we eat is very important, as well as eating slowly and calmly.
- You eat it first. If you want your kids to eat something, eat it yourself, prepare it and put it on the table. Never give your kids a chance to say “but Dad/Mom doesn’t like carrots”. If you are fussy, do not expect them to eat everything you present to them.
- Buy Fresh. When you shop, buy fresh rather than processed food. If kids open the refrigerator and all they see is fruits and vegetables, they will end up eating fruits and vegetables. If they see chocolates, cakes and other processed foods, they will eat more of those. Aim for a ratio of 90% healthy and 10% junk. Find out your current ratio and gradually improve it towards buying fresh.
- Introduce different kinds of food. Make sure your kids are adventurous with food. Teach them to try new things and explore different tastes to establish a positive attitude towards food. Let them mix things on their plate to create new combinations (and bite your tongue if you have to).
- Go on “food travel”. Take your kids to ethnic restaurants and try food from different countries in the world. Kids will eat in the restaurant things they might not like to eat at home. Try to stay away from the kids’ menu, which is typically standard, boring stuff, and remember that saving money is not always the best thing to do. Most kids’ menus are less healthy than the grownups’ menu. You are paying, so use this power wisely. If you get into a conflict with your kids over the food, let them choose between two healthy options. This way, they have some independence, but they will eat good food either way and their variety will keep growing.
- Find creative ways to prepare the food. Zigzag or wavy knives can be magic. Decorate their plate with sauce and build pancake towers. Some kids eat the beauty of the food, so use this to your advantage.
- Give your kids choices. If you want your kids to enjoy their food, ask them what they prefer for you to make. Again, give them two or three healthy choices and let them pick one. If they have contributed to the decision, they will eat it better.
- Let your kids make the food. Invite your kids to make food for you or join you to the preparation. Kids tend to eat better when they have made the food. From the stage they can read, you can give them a recipe and ask them to cook or bake.
- Make meal time happy. Avoid fighting or lecturing during meal time. Use the opportunity for everyone to tell about their day. Families that constantly fight during meal time stress their kids and cause them to fear mealtimes. Play games, sing songs, have a family meeting, spend some time planning, tell jokes and laugh a lot.
Together with the right kind of food, our habits are important in maintaining our health. When people diet, they will always tell you that changing their habits is the most challenging part of that change.
If you want your kids to be food-smart, start early!