I wrote this post as a participant in the Eat, Play, Love blog carnival hosted by Meals Matter and Dairy Council of California to share ideas on positive and fun ways to teach children healthy eating habits. A list of other registered dietitians and moms who are participating in the carnival will be listed at the bottom of this post or can be found on Meals Matter. Don’t miss the free Webinar on May 18th as we talk about the fundamentals for raising healthy eaters. I’ll be speaking along with Janet Helm, RD, Jill Castle, MS, RD, and Andrea Garen, MA, RD. It will be a feeding bonanza!
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned since starting this blog two years ago and becoming a mom, it’s that I don’t have all the answers. I can’t give you the exact formula for turning kids into healthy eaters. But I can, as Oprah says, tell you what I know for sure.
There’s one very under-rated strategy for increasing the chances that your child will grow into an adult who eats well. And by well, I mean someone who eats a balanced diet, eats the right amount of food for their body type, eats sweets in moderation, prepares meals for themselves, and is healthy because of it.
What’s the secret?
It has nothing to do with starting them young or hiding veggies or any of the stuff you always hear about. Instead, it’s keeping your eye on the prize and not wavering.
Short term vs. long term
When it comes to feeding, parents have two areas to focus on — short-term needs and long-term goals. The first is making sure your kids are fed and meeting their nutritional needs. No doubt this is important. But if you use how our children are eating today as a testament to how you are doing as a feeder, you are likely to be miserable and guilt-ridden a lot of the time.
In fact, this pressure to get kids to eat perfectly is what leads to many feeding mistakes. Parents are more likely to pressure kids to eat certain foods or give up entirely. I recently met a mom of a four-year-old who was on the brink of giving up on her child’s eating. (I gave her a really quick pep talk and thankfully she changed her mind).
But if you can keep your focus on the second area, the long-term goal, it changes the game. You will be less tempted to do things to get your children to eat healthy today but have negative effects long-term. (For more on strategies that back-fire long term, see this post.) In other words, you need to check in with your daily feeding rituals to make sure they are in line with your long-term goal.
Maureen K Bligh, MA, RD, is a registered dietitian and mom of two teenage boys, 17 and 18. She remembers all too well what it was like when they were younger and wouldn’t eat meat, rice or veggies (or any mixed dish), but they did eat fruit, milk, and bread.
Maureen recalls viewing a video from Ellyn Satter, before having kids, that made a lasting impression. The video showed 5 scenarios of parents forcing kids to eat food and she couldn’t believe her eyes. Her takeaway: “If you force kids to eat they won’t choose to eat those foods in the long run.”
Even though Maureen was not picky when she was a kid — she had two boys that were. And she knew exactly what to do.
She followed the Division of Responsibility of feeding, letting her children decide what and whether to eat of what she decided to serve. Dinner was the toughest meal, as it is with many children, and she made sure to serve it family-style, encouraged a pleasant environment, and as a result, heard many, “No thank you, mommy, not tonight,” responses.
“I served milk, fruit, and bread with each meal,” she adds. “I figured that way they were not going to die.”
When asked if it was difficult she said, “Not really.” It was clear she believed in what she was doing and trusted that one day her children would branch out in the food department.
Then that day came. Her eldest and most picky son, around the age of 8, said four words that made her do the happy dance on the inside: “I’ll have the broccoli.” Maureen says this was the start of his gradually trying more foods, which really took off during middle school.
“I know the experts say it takes 10-15 tries before kids learn to like a food,” she points out. “But I think it takes many more times for some kids, at least that’s how it worked for mine.”
But most importantly her kids will now try anything, are fit, regulate their intake well, eat a variety of foods (from all the food groups), and really seem to value family meals.
Expectations, beliefs, and trust about kids’ eating matter
Most parents believe their kids will learn to read novels, drive cars, and do other things adults do every day. But when it comes to eating, many lack the same confidence that their kids will eventually learn to eat well. That’s probably why there is so much pushing and giving up and outright frustration about children’s eating.
Maureen admits that if she had not been prepared, or had the right information, she may have been pushier with her kids’ eating. Instead, she kept her eye on the prize – and believed that eventually, her kids would, of their own volition, choose to eat healthy foods — and it has paid off.
Yet Maureen makes it clear that life at home isn’t perfect. Her boys eat more fast food than she would like and deal with peer pressure when it comes to eating. “It’s still a leap of faith in many respects,” she admits.
Yet she is reminded that her children always return to the foundation of healthy eating she has spent years building in her home. When her youngest son was being hassled for having a dietitian mom he responded, “I like it, mom. I like that you feed us healthy food.”
No doubt you will weather many storms when it comes to your kids’ eating because they are in the process of learning — and have a lot of mistakes to make. I certainly don’t love it when my four-year-old responds to an unfamiliar dinner at a friend’s house with, “Do you have any ice cream?”
I know that for her, ice cream (vanilla) always tastes the same and satisfies. The day will come when she eats more of the food in front of her. The belief and trust that my daughter will grow into a good eater are so strong, that it keeps me going, even on the worst days.
How do you keep perspective when it comes to feeding your kids?
Don’t stop here! Join the carnival and read other Eat, Play, Love blogs from dietitians and moms offering the best advice on raising healthy eaters.
Feeding Kids is Love, Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN
5 Quick Ways to Prepare Veggies with Maximum Flavor, Dayle Hayes, MS, RD
The Art of Dinnertime, Elana Natker, MS, RD
Children Don’t Need a Short Order Cook, Christy Slaughter
Cut to the Point – My Foodie Rules, Glenda Gourley
Eat, Play, Love – A Challenge for Families, Alysa Bajenaru, RD
Eat, Play, Love ~ Raising Healthy Eaters, Kia Robertson
Get Kids Cooking, Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RD, CDN
Kid-Friendly Kitchen Gear Gets Them Cooking, Katie Sullivan Morford, MS, RD
Kids that Can Cook Make Better Food Choices, Glenda Gourley
Making Mealtime Fun, Nicole Guierin, RD
My No Junk Food Journey – Want to Come Along? , Kristine Lockwood
My Recipe for Raising Healthy Eaters: Eat Like the French, Bridget Swinney MS, RD, LD
Playing with Dough and the Edible Gift of Thyme, Robin Plotkin, RD, LD
Picky Eaters Will Eat Vegetables, Theresa Grisanti, MA
Raising a Healthy Eater, Danielle Omar, MS, RD
Putting the Ease in Healthy Family Eating, Connie Evers, MS, RD, LD
Raising Healthy Eaters Blog Carnival & Chat Roundup, Ann Dunaway Teh, MS, RD, LD
Soccer Mom Soapbox, Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
Teenagers Can Be Trying But Don’t Give Up Diane Welland MS, RD
What My Kids Taught Me About Eating Mindfully, Michelle May, MD