It is such a gift to empower our children with nutrition knowledge and freedom to make some of their own food choices. It is really much simpler than it may feel sometimes. There is a lot of information and advice flying around out there, but there are truly only a few key tenants that we want to portray to our children in order to start them off on a physically and emotionally healthy relationship with food and nutrition.
1. Teach them to trust their body’s internal system of hunger and satiety. Children will stop when they are full/satisfied unless we teach them otherwise. They will also eat when they are hungry. Overeating is taught. Even if it seems like they are a bottomless pit, they are not! Everyone is different, and have varying growth patterns. Our genetics compose about 5 percent of our metabolism, and that difference can really be noticeable in children.
Sometimes children will grow out and then up. So they have an increased appetite for a bit, and seem to fill out a little, and then all of a sudden they will shoot up in height. This should not be misconstrued as inappropriate weight gain, and NEVER put a child on a diet. Restricting children’s food intake will almost always end BADLY. The ramifications can be lifelong, and end up actually exacerbating the same problem that is trying to be controlled.
Most children are naturally picky eaters. It is okay. It is said that children need to “see” (not necessarily eat) some foods on average of 25 times before they will try or like it.
Forcing kids to clean their plates or to try foods against their will only turns food into a battlefield and a place for them to try to assert control. It can place a negative spin on mealtime, eating, trying new foods, and again have the opposite effect of what is trying to be accomplished.
I’m all for some mild bribery in order to gently “encourage” eating healthy foods before getting junk food. However, it can be a slippery slope…if there is crying, gagging, and hours at a dinner table, it’s gone too far, just let it go. We accomplish more sometimes by being flexible and showing our children that we make mistakes, than trying to “win” certain battles (this one in particular).
2. Always have available a variety and good balance of foods in the house and at mealtimes. You have done your part as a parent when you OFFER and MAKE AVAILABLE variety. Your children may not always choose the perfectly healthful plate of food, but you have made it possible. They are enigmatic little creatures that sometimes defy all the best science has to offer. Just go with it, and know that their food choices will balance out as long as the options are available to them! Trust their bodies.
A variety of foods includes the no so healthy stuff too. We don’t want to set up a forbidden fruit scenario! But obviously we want there to be much more healthy stuff to choose from than the empty calorie snacks.
When I speak with children about nutrition I like to tell them all the cool things that different foods do for their bodies (building muscles, healing cuts, seeing well at night, building strong bones, etc.). Then I explain to them that foods like cake, chips, candy, and soda will fill up their stomachs if they feel hungry, but won’t do all the good things to help their bodies grow and be strong and healthy. So, if they want to have chips with their lunch, it may be a good choice to have their grapes and carrots first, so they don’t eat all the chips and then are too full for the healthy stuff.
www.choosemyplate.gov is an easy way to show children the kinds of foods to choose most of the time…heavy on the fruits and vegetables, protein, grains, and some dairy.
The biggest thing that I am a personal stickler about with respect to foods for children is SODA. All kinds of soda, whether it is regular or diet, is TERRIBLE for children (and adults for that matter). Empty sugar calories and artificial sweeteners and caffeine…none have any redeeming qualities, and do terrible things to growing bodies.
Again, there may have to be some flexibility involved. Children have different personalities, and being too hard core can be counter-productive sometimes. However, soda is something that doesn’t have to be in your home on a regular basis. And, if you do give your children soda, consider choosing something without the sweeteners and caffeine, and not the whole can. Pour them 4-6 ounces after they have already had a healthy beverage or water. You can also let them know that soda is for special occasions and not a daily or weekly beverage choice.
So, I guess my big picture message is…be flexible, but be present. Show your children by example what a well rounded healthy diet looks like. Have healthy options available, but don’t be an unyielding stickler. Mistakes will be made by all parties involved, but that’s human nature and part of learning. Just go with it!
Have a great week!