My kids are 4 and 9 years old. Their healthy eating habits are just that, habitual. When they first started eating solids, we decided to implement healthy eating habits.
They don’t really think about whether something is healthy or not anymore. I’m pretty sure they know which foods are a better and worse choices, and -more importantly- how their bodies are going to react to certain foods.
Obviously, they didn’t come pre-programmed with this knowledge (though how cool would that be?). It’s been a gradual adaptation into a healthy lifestyle. We have given them the opportunity to make their own decisions at times, and to experience the repercussion of such decision-making. When they make poor decisions, we try to educate them about how their body is reacting.
Teaching kids to eat well can be tricky. You don’t want to give them more facts than they can grasp or turn every meal into a lecture. But wait too long and they could pick up unhealthy habits in the meantime.
An alarming 25 percent of Australian children are being classified as overweight or obese. This is the direct result of a number of behaviours including:
Higher than recommended consumption of “occasional” foods that are high in added fat, sugar and salt;
Lower than recommended consumption of fruit and vegetables;
More takeaway meals; and,
Meals being eaten in front of the TV causing a disconnection between mind and body about how full they are.
If you are looking to tweak or overhaul your family’s eating habits, here is a list of ideas that worked with our kids. This is certainly not an exhaustive or prescriptive list.
Be a role model: Parents often underestimate their role in the development of healthy eating habits. Role modelling balanced eating is the first step to helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food. Actions speak louder than words. Kids watch, listen and learn through observation. They follow what they see.
Choose a time during the week when the kids are allowed to have “occasional” foods: We have never placed a ban on foods (except ones that cause allergies – for our kids, this is food colouring). Instead, we have plenty of “occasional” foods in our pantry for the kids to choose from at allocated times. For example, after a few dinners every week, they know that they are allowed a serving of chocolate, for example. (Note: Funnily enough, sometimes they have veered away from the junk option and opted for a healthy option instead. I think it might be the psychological effect of knowing that the junk is always available to them at a later time.)
Involve the kids in the shopping, preparation and cooking processes: I know that this can be a pain, especially when you just want to get things done. However, it allows them to understand the process, and allows them to be part of the decision making around what to buy for family meals, for example. Kids are also more likely to eat food that they have helped to prepare.
Avoid using food as a reward or bribe or holding back on foods as punishment. Food is for energy, nourishment, joy and enjoyment. Using foods as rewards, bribes or punishment is likely to link food to negative outcomes for your kids, which can in turn lead to destructive eating habits later on in life.
Show kids where their food has come from. A fun outing may be to take the kids to the local farmer’s market, or perhaps even to a local farm to participate in fruit picking or animal milking. This will allow them to interact with foods closer to their source and importantly, with the people who are bringing the food to their table. It will form curiosity in their minds and hopefully will generate another level of interest in their food.
Implement changes one snack at a time. Replace one or two of your family’s favourite snacks with a healthier alternative – do this weekly, and soon enough, you’ll find that you will have replaced most of your original choices with a healthier choice.
Fill your fridge and pantry with colourful, fresh food that is appealing to the eyes. We all eat with our eyes first. When you fill your fridge- think fresh berries, plentiful greens, produce with interesting textures that they can touch and jars full of delicious and intriguing pantry items (like a candy store!). The variety may just be the thing that will whet their appetite and kindle their curiosity. My kids started out with just plain yogurt, for example. They have now ventured into topping their yogurt with berries, different types of nuts, different types of cereals or desiccated coconut. Kids love experimenting – so make sure you give them the opportunity to do so!
Allocate a few meals a week, if possible, to sit down to eat as a family. This allows memories to be created. Joyful memories around food will allow the kids to associate more positive behaviour and emotions around food. Food is not a chore – rather, it involves conversation and togetherness.
Try a new recipe periodically. We do this about once a fortnight. We have found that sticking to old favourites and evolving them by adding more veggies, for example, is the most effective way of trying a “new” recipe. For example, my kids have continued to love their lasagne even though our “new” version is now pimped up with carrot, zucchini and baby spinach.
Offer water. In our home, we drink water and have shifted all other drinks into the “occasional” pile. Empty calories consumed through drinks are one of the worst types because drinks are so easily consumed. So, offer water. There is no need to add unnecessary salt and sugar consumption. You can jazz up water by simply making it cold or adding ice cubes (what kid doesn’t love ice cubes?!), or you could go fancy by adding bits of chopped fruit.
So guys, I really hope this will help you make some positive changes in your family’s eating habits. If you do manage to try anything out, make sure you let me know how it goes because I would love to hear about it!