March is National Nutrition Month. This is Part 1 in a series devoted to improving nutrition in children.
It’s the age old question – how do I get my children to eat healthier? As a mother of 3, I was astonished when my background in nutrition was completely nullified by the strong will of my incredibly picky first-born. Some days I felt like I was winning if I would just get that girl to eat, let alone choose a vegetable! Over the years, however, I have slowly adapted my parenting to help my children make (and actually enjoy) healthier food choices. It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t always as easy as I had hoped, but it did eventually happen. (And when it did, oh, how I celebrated!) I truly believe taking the slow and steady approach has created a life-long love for healthy foods, not just a parent appeasing toleration for healthy foods. So just in time for National Nutrition Month, here are some tips on how to get those picky little eaters in your life to enjoy their fruits and veggies!
- Be a role model – As with most things in life, if you repeatedly model good behavior and choices for your children, they will eventually catch on. The key here is EXPOSURE. Children need to be exposed to foods numerous times before they are willing to accept them as choices for themselves. One of the easiest ways to expose them without making it into a battle at the dinner table is for them to watch you eating healthy foods. When you make a salad with lots of vegetables in it, tell them why you like that choice. Not because vegetables are “good” and candy is “bad” but, rather, because vegetables help to keep your body healthy so you have energy to play with them. This will resonate with kids much better than simply placing a label on the food.
- Get the kids involved – This can be done in numerous different ways depending on the age of the child. One of the easiest ways to involve your kids in making healthy choices is by taking them to the grocery store with you. Give them choices that you can live with in order to help them feel empowered and in charge of the food they are eating. Offer them the option between apples or pears for the week. Point out all the different colors there are to select from in the produce section and make it a game to try to choose something from each color to create a rainbow on their plates. If you have older children, involve them in the cooking process; or even better, grow some of your own fruits and vegetables at home. Research has shown that the more ownership children feel when it comes to what is on their plates, the more willing they are to actually eat it!
- Mix it up – It is well known that young children can actually be fearful of new foods and that the intensity of this fear can vary from child to child. The best way to counteract this innate fear is to offer a wide range of foods early and often, before the fear kicks in (which is usually between the ages of 2-6). When your children are young, offer a variety of fruits and vegetables, and don’t give in if the first attempt is rejected. Studies have shown that it can take an infant upwards of 10 times trying a food before they have a preference for it — so just keep trying! If your children are older, try mixing the new food in with a familiar and well-loved food. Try adding minced cauliflower in with their mac and cheese, ground lean turkey in with pasta sauces, or add green peppers to their pizza. Another easy way to make meals healthier is by swapping out white grain products for whole grain alternatives. Make that spaghetti or mac and cheese with whole grain pasta and I highly doubt your child will even notice the difference.
- Make food fun – this is especially true for young children. Give foods fun names! In my house, we make “Superman Spaghetti Casserole” with whole grain pasta in fun shapes (whichever they choose for that week), pasta sauce, ground lean turkey, part-skim mozzarella, and finely chopped green pepper and mushroom. You can name it for which ever super hero or character your kids are into at the time. We specifically talk about how some foods give our bodies energy and help keep our muscles and bones big and strong so we can be fast and strong like Superman. You can also make things fun by creating things with food. I’m not talking about some intricate design seen on Pinterest here. I’m talking about simply adding some raisins on top of a whole grain pancake to make a smiley face or building a Lincoln-log type house of carrot sticks. Food that is fun gets kids excited about what they are eating!
Most importantly, don’t try to do everything at once. A total overhaul in the kitchen is likely not going to go over well with your little ones. Take it slow and try to institute one of the suggestions above every few weeks. My kids were not born loving broccoli or tuna casserole, and trust me, we do occasionally indulge in movie popcorn and chocolate cake. It is how we eat over the long run that makes us healthy, so make it varied and make it fun!
*** Sara DePierre is a board certified Physician’s Assistant. She has completed the IBLCE’s Lactation Consultant program requirements and is scheduled to sit for Board Certification in the spring of 2016. Sara sees patients at Pediatric Alliance Jefferson Hills.