As I’ve mentioned before, I was a dietitian before medical school. I love helping parents feel empowered to raise healthy eaters. So I am BEYOND excited for today’s guest post all about this topic! This is such a big topic that it is going to span 2 weeks. Dr. Sarah Fox is going to share her 5 pro tips for supporting healthy eaters as well as information about her cookbook that has been used to raise funds for their community’s school. I hope you enjoy this informative series and feel empowered to help your kids develop a healthy and diverse palate!
I’m so happy to be writing this article about one of my favorite topics- teaching kids to love healthy foods. I know it sometimes seems impossible to do that, but I’ll share some tips for fostering healthy eating habits- which (bonus!) will also help to cut down on mealtime battles.
As a family doctor, I see children in my practice every day, but I also see adults who struggle with establishing and maintaining healthy lifestyle habits- especially when they weren’t taught or modeled those healthy habits as children (or when they carry significant negative self-image from body shaming or food shaming as children). I also have 3 kids, and I came to parenthood with a not-ideal relationship with food. When I had my oldest daughter, I had a realization that if I didn’t figure out how to establish and maintain healthy habits and a healthier mindset for myself, my daughter could end up with the same food issues I had learned.
This battle is not an easy one to fight. We are surrounded by constant messages about food and body image. Most of the messages we get are incredibly negative and harmful. I see the negative effects in my patients daily, and have to work against that negativity in myself and my family.
Sometimes it seems impossible to raise children who eat a wide variety of healthy foods happily without mealtime battles, but I promise it is not impossible. Seeing healthy foods through a new lens can totally transform the way you look at your own eating habits and self-image as a parent.
A caveat before I jump in: there are children with sensory or developmental issues that will affect eating habits, and I know how challenging that can be to manage as a family. These tips are meant to be helpful, not critical- we’re all doing the best we can!
5 Pro Tips
Between these two posts I am going to share 5 pro tips! These are: start early, get them involved, pay attention, be consistent, and be patient. There’s a lot of information so I am going to talk about them over a series of posts to give you some bite size action items! Ready to get started?
One of the most mind-blowing facts I’ve learned in my training and research is that food preferences for a person’s entire lifetime are established by the time they’re 2 years old! Now, that doesn’t mean that the kind of food you eat now is limited to what you ate back then, but
preferences for vegetables, sweets, salty foods, and even “why we eat” preferences are hardwired into our brains at a very early age. If you can start early with helping your child establish healthy eating habits, it’s going to be much easier down the road.
That doesn’t mean your 3 year old (or 13 year old!) is a lost cause- it just means that the earlier you start, the easier it will be to teach these skills. This probably even starts in utero- babies who are exposed to a wider variety of foods (including lots of spices and herbs) during pregnancy tend to have a palate that prefers those things when they start solids. Eating a wide variety of foods while breastfeeding also helps with this exposure before babies are introduced to solids. Fortunately, neither of these things makes or breaks a healthy eater.
I was slightly worried that my oldest would only want grilled cheese sandwiches or salty carbs in general because that’s all I could eat during my prolonged pregnancy nausea. Good news – she did just fine. My point is not to make people feel guilty about what you have or haven’t done for your child so far. Just that starting early makes it easier for parents but it’s never too late!
Get Them Involved
Mealtime sometimes seems like the most important time to help kids learn healthy eating habits. Getting them involved in food preparation may actually be more important in teaching them those habits. This is especially important as it can be free from the pressure of mealtime battles that sometimes arise. If a child is involved in growing and harvesting food, purchasing from the grocery store or farmer’s market, cutting up, and cooking food, they are much more likely to have a positive reaction to seeing new foods. They are also more likely to try new foods, and to ultimately like those new foods. WIN!
If you don’t have room to plant a garden, you could plant a kitchen herb garden. If it’s a challenge to take your kids to the grocery store, see if they can help you make a grocery list or pick out a recipe that you can shop for. Teach them early to crack eggs, measure ingredients, and even cut up
fruits and vegetables with a paring knife. You may be surprised what foods kids will try when they have been involved in some part of the process.
One great example of this: we have a large school garden at our local elementary school (built with money earned from our cookbook project- more on that at the end of the article!), and all of the classes get a chance to plant seeds or seedlings, care for the garden, and do some harvesting. On the last day of school every year, we have a tasting party in the garden. Kids harvest and cut up the veggies that are ripe (which, in Wisconsin in early June is a little limited; but we usually have lettuce, radishes, spinach, and chives).
Then comes the best part! They all get to taste what they want. A local farmer who helps coordinate the work in the garden brings ingredients for a dipping vinaigrette, and there’s a wonderfully chaotic 2 hour whirl of activity in the garden with hundreds of kids enthusiastically eating vegetables and talking about what they like. Now, if we had put spinach on their plates in the lunchroom on the first day of school, I’m not sure we would have had such enthusiasm. Because the kids were involved in planting, harvesting, washing, and chopping, they were set up for trying and liking those foods.
Cookbook for Good
I promised more about the cookbook project that funded our school garden project. When my oldest was in first grade, I got very frustrated with the
classroom snacks that other parents were bringing- cookies, chips, and [twice in one week] Glazers donuts.
Side bar for those not from the midwest where Kwik Trip Glazers donuts are ubiquitous. They’re the Wisconsin version of Krispy Kreme glazed donuts.
Now these weren’t birthday snacks, just everyday mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks for 6 year olds! I realized that parents were bringing these treats because they were easy, they didn’t know what else to bring, and because they didn’t think that kids wanted “healthy” snacks.
A photographer friend and I raised $10,000 with a kick-starter grant and wrote a cookbook. And that is how “Super Snacks for Super Kids” was born. the cookbook has 60 kid-friendly healthy snack recipes. You know what was so fun? We did a photo shoot with local kids (including my own 3 kiddos)! The kids loved it!
Our first printing was in 2012 and 2,000 books were released. The sales of the first edition benefited our district’s wellness fund. We raised over $30,000 with the project, which helped fund the school garden and other health-related projects. There was great support so we did a second printing which is now for sale on Amazon. We offer the book wholesale to schools and non-profits for fundraising and wellness efforts. If you’d like to learn more, you can visit our website, www.superkidsbook.com.
That’s all for this week! Stop back next Friday for part-two of the How to Raise Healthy Eaters!
Dr. Sarah Fox is a board-certified Family Medicine physician practicing in Wisconsin. She lives her husband and our 3 children (and adorable Goldendoodle) in a historic, artsy small town in the beautiful driftless area of southwest Wisconsin. She practices full-spectrum health care, and was recently named Medical Director of the 7 rural clinics in the region. She is passionate about preventive medicine and helping people improve their health through lifestyle change and self-care.