I’m a physician, a wife and a mother. I have four children, ages 21, 19, 13 and 9. I started my solo medical practice with its focus on nutrition and metabolism when my oldest children were just 3 and 5. My children have been part of my real life research in what works and what doesn’t since early in their lives. When my book, “Helping Your Overweight Child” was published in 2002 my oldest two children were 6 and 8. This book not only shared my experiences helping patients as well as their children, it also shared my real life experience regarding eating out with my children as well.
I’d like to share with you a few healthy eating tips and tricks I share with parents and also have used for success with my own family – they’ll help both in and out of the car, on the way to sports, school, playdates and will help you keep your children healthy, and happy.
Starting Early Makes a Difference
Starting early makes a difference. This is far different from using guilt to try to make your children eat their veggies at a young age. I’m speaking more to what you do, than what they do. One of the best things we, as parents, can do for our children is to model healthy behaviors. My children know that people exercise - it is not a theoretical thing. (“Mommy is back from the gym to make us breakfast” or “Daddy will help with this project when he comes back from biking.”)
I remember my husband being annoyed that our oldest daughter, when she was around five, was hounding him for sips of his soda. We knew this wouldn’t be an issue if he wasn’t drinking soda either. If we came home hungry from work and opened a bag of chips, you could expect our children to want chips for dinner, even if we made a healthy meal. Leading by example can set an amazing standard in your home that lasts a lifetime. Same goes on the road. Make sure you’re bringing healthy snacks, instead of stopping at fast food restaurants, and keeping up healthy values even when you’re outside of your kitchen or home.
Establish a Healthy Eating Routine that Works
I was not healthier with any of my kids more than others. However, I did change my family to a gluten free diet due to food allergy issues with my youngest children. My younger kids have never eaten some of the ‘popular foods’ in the American diet and it’s not a problem. There are so many wonderful tasting foods that even dietary restrictions from food allergies can be handled fairly easily. What we found to be most successful was when the whole family adopted a gluten free diet. This made our diet consistent and fair so so we didn’t have foods that some of the children couldn’t eat.
Choose “Yummy or Yummy”
Many restaurants have kid’s menus with food that isn’t the healthiest, and then it’s paired with unlimited soft drinks and a dessert. So I created a rule: The kids could pick a soda OR dessert. This helps immensely when on vacation or traveling, as well as on a regular night out. It keeps them cognizant of their food and health decisions, and lets them indulge without overindulging.
I met a mother of a 21 year old last month who read my book and it really worked with her and her son who has Asperger’s – I think the technique can work for all kids. It changes from saying ‘no’ and the feeling of deprival; to instead, they have a choice yes or yes (yummy or yummy). Parents have to reign in eating habits of children because they don’t understand the effect of diets too high in calories, sugar or fat – they understand what tastes they do and don’t like.
Nutrition is Key
Parents should make and plan snacks and meals that not only appeal to our children, but also have good nutrition. This can be a tall order for parents, but remember, every meal you serve your children does not have to be their favorite. Try chicken, fish, lean cuts of red meat and introduce different vegetables. Most people will overeat if presented with highly palatable food and eat dessert even if we are painfully stuffed if it looks good. When traveling, make sure you prepare food in advance, to have on hand. Instead of stopping for unhealthy food once children get hungry, a healthy, grab-and-go snack will be at their fingertips.
Don’t force your child to eat but don’t become a short order chef. Let your child know “this is what we are having,” they can choose to eat it or not. If they eat little, they will eat more at the next meal – just make sure the next meal is also balanced. Try not to do the “you didn’t like what I made, you can have buttered pasta;” or you will likely find your child only eating buttered pasta.
Roll with It
As a mother of 4, I understand that their likes one day can be a dislike the next. Roll with it.
Provide platters of different types of healthy foods and do not set any demands on what they eat. Watch what they enjoy and then learn and repeat. Try reintroducing foods in the future. I have enjoyed watching the taste buds of my children change with time. I kept an assignment my oldest daughter wrote in first grade about foods she didn’t like. She listed salsa. As a teenager it became her favorite food and she loved all varieties!
Sneaky Ways to Add in Healthy Snacks
I started dessert nights with my children to make clear that every night was not dessert night. It’s easy to declare that dessert night is two nights a week (or whatever reasonable number works with your family). When the kids pick the dessert it makes dessert night special and transitions a habit of always eating something sweet after every meal, to an actual occasion. The same can be said about snacking on the go: make certain days a “special” day if you’re out during dinner, or on vacation. This will allow them to enjoy their favorite foods, but won’t make it a habit. Learning this eating pattern early on really helps.