Feeding my family is something that has brought me more joy than I ever imagined it would. Not always the act itself (I could do without the squabbles over cup color and the rice confetti that covers my floor after curry night), but each time I make my family a meal that is nourishing their growing bodies, I feel a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. When we bake birthday cakes and dig into thick slices covered with cream cheese icing I commit the mmms and smiles to memory. Scoff if you must, but the food aspect of motherhood speaks to me.
On my recent reader survey, I received a request that asked how to teach kids to eat healthy foods without making them feel like certain foods are good or bad. I thought it was a great question and something I’ve thought about a lot over the past six years of feeding the girls. Here are my thoughts:
ONE: I have to truly believe myself that there are no good and bad foods.
With kids, more is caught than taught, meaning they are going to soak up and take on our actions and beliefs, even if what is coming out of our mouths is saying the opposite. This is where a parent dieting can get a a little hairy. Not that it can’t be done, but if I child constantly hears “I can’t eat that” or “that will go straight to my thighs,” it will get in their heads that certain foods are bad. Read more on raising a girl to have a healthy body image here.
TWO: We focus on how different foods makes us feel.
But shouldn’t we be teaching them that vegetables are better than cake? Yes, I think so! At a certain age, probably around 4 years old in my experience, it’s a good idea to start a conversation about why we eat some foods more often than others. Some people really like the traffic light method of feeding children, but for my kids, it has worked to just talk about the food as we eat. We talk about how our bodies work and how certain foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains fill our bodies with fuel that allows us to run, think, create, and play at our maximum ability. Other foods like candy, cookies, and cake don’t offer the same fueling power. We keep the explanation simple, short, and sweet (no pun intended).
THREE: I relish in the control I have at these young ages.
As a mom (that thrives on power mwahaha), I love that I control what fills our fridge and pantry. I love being the one to choose what is for dinner. I believe that once it’s in the house, it’s fair game, so I keep that in mind when I’m at the store. I don’t buy junk food or many snacks because I don’t want us to eat it and snacking isn’t something that works well in my family (it results in picky eating at meal time). However, if cookies are being handed out after a basketball game, my girls can go for it! I don’t often restrict what they have when we are out because I know that 90% of the time we are eating at home, so the 10% can be a little loose.
FOUR: Don’t use food as a reward.
I know this is so tempting because I’ve fallen victim to it before myself, BUT kids need to learn to deal with all their emotions and I believe consistently offering a sweet treat to calm them down, for example, could be setting up for an unhealthy dependency on food as a fix as they get older. Offering a treat for them eating a vegetable just reinforces the idea that sweet is good and vegetables are a necessary evil you have to choke down to get to the good stuff. It can also mess with their ability to internal hunger cues and regulate their own eating. Overall, I think it’s just better to pick a non-food reward like extra books, a trip to the zoo, or a special craft instead of food.
FIVE: Keep emotions neutral whether serving cake or curry.
I don’t bite my lip and beg my kids to just give dinner a chance if it’s something I’m unsure they will enjoy. I also don’t give lecture on how we don’t do this everyday if I let them eat leftover birthday cake for breakfast. It’s just food! They know we don’t have birthday cake for breakfast everyday because we don’t have it in our house except on birthdays, so if they want it for breakfast, I let them! And then I don’t flinch when I serve them a salad and falafel for dinner.
SIX: We eat together (if possible) and we all eat the same thing.
It may be easy to make the adults a meal and the toddler something else at first, but it gets harder as the kids get older and are eating more. Because of this, I believe it’s best to make a single meal for dinner and all eat the same thing. We sometimes separate the components for Kaitlyn (3) or leave off a sauce if it’s spicy, but I believe all eating the same basic meal helps enforce healthy eating habits. It makes things easier, ensures that everyone is eating a healthy meal, and kids are more likely to try something if they see everyone else eating it too (monkey see monkey do).
It’s no secret I love food, but the way I talk about it here on the blog, using words like plant-based, paleo, intuitive eating, etc, only really happens on here. In our house, food is food is food. I buy and serve the good stuff, but don’t stress about when we get in and bake cookies either.
Feeding kids can really be frustrating, especially when they are very young and communication is limited. But now that we are a little further along (ages 6 and 3), I can attest that starting early with serving quality food and being consistent in your approach will pay off. My kids are still kids and squeal with delight with they get to lick the cookie batter bowl and would probably request mac ‘n cheese if you asked them, but I don’t believe that you have to cater to their preferences in order for them to actually eat and grow.
Some of the best things I’ve learned about feeding kids over the past six years has come from experience and from YOU, so please share with me-
What is meal time like in your house?
What are your habits/rules that work for feeding your family?
What are your challenges?