This week’s guest post is a continuation of last week’s popular post on how to raise healthy eaters. Last week Dr. Sarah Fox shared 2 of her 5 pro tips and let us know about her amazing cookbook for healthy snacks. If you didn’t catch it, be sure to read it here.
As a reminder, the 5 tips for raising healthy eaters are: start early, get them involved, pay attention, be patient and be consistent.
An incredibly important thing you can do to help your children learn to love healthy foods is to pay attention to the messages you are sending your kids. This includes intentional and unintentional messages about healthy eating habits.
An intentional message might be “if you don’t finish those vegetables, you can’t have any dessert.” You’re trying to get them to eat their vegetables and you want to make sure they have a well rounded meal, right? But…the message they may receive is “dessert is reward, so vegetables must be punishment. Dessert is delicious, vegetables are disgusting.”
An unintentional message might be when a child says, “I’m full”, and a parent (or grandparent!) says, “just eat 3 more bites” or “finish your milk.” The message that is sent is “don’t listen to your body about what/how much you should eat. Listen to someone else’s expectations.”
It is very important to remember that there will be some days where you kids will eat everything in sight, and days where they hardly eat anything at all. This is totally normal! As adults, we do this too when we really stop to think about how hungry or full we are one day. We need to teach our kids to respect their bodies and help them learn those feelings of hunger and fullness and know how to fuel their bodies when needed.
Teaching your child to listen to their body is crucial for developing healthy eating habits. This starts by remembering the golden rule of feeding children: you get to decide what and when they’re eating, they get to decide how much (even if that’s nothing at all!). You can read more about this concept at this blog post.
This can be really challenging for some parents – and even more challenging for grandparents! It is incredible how much more pleasant it makes mealtime when you follow the division of responsibility described by Ellyn Satter.
What does this look like? My middle child is 13 and eats an unfathomable amount of food in a day. He is growing like crazy! He had a very picky stage between about 18 months and 4 years old (which is so, so, so common, am I right?). He would sit down to eat and whine his way around the food, saying what he didn’t like or what he wasn’t going to try. One day I said, “this is what we’re having for dinner, the next meal is breakfast. If you’re not hungry, you don’t have to eat.” And that was my mantra for the next 3 years.
It was absolutely life-changing for our family.
No more bribing, convincing, cajoling, or threatening to get him to try new things. This gave him the space and freedom to actually try foods every once in a while and like them! If he asked a question about the food, like “what is that green stuff?” I would try to answer it in a very neutral way, “that’s zucchini from the garden”. Not “you should try it” or “remember, you liked it last time”. I made sure he knew my feelings weren’t hurt if he ate or didn’t eat something, and we very quietly celebrated small victories, “hmm, it seemed like you liked the pizza with the peppers on it. Should I make it like that again sometime?”
If the story above is an example of anything, it’s the very important advice to be patient. That was 3 years where I wondered if he would ever choose to eat vegetables. Fast-forward to now. Last week he helped me unload groceries before we hosted a party and asked how many of the cucumbers, carrots and celery he could eat himself, since I was using them to make a veggie plate. Then he ate most of the veggie plate as well.
It takes a LONG time to learn these skills. I tell my patients that it takes 12 times of seeing an unfamiliar food before a child will try it and 12 times of trying a food before they learn to like it. If they try something and spit it out, you’re one trial closer to them actually eating it. I also remind people that tastes change over time. One of the reasons it’s common to have a picky stage in the toddler-preschool age is that their palates are more sensitive, and they may taste flavors you don’t notice. This could bet he bitterness of vegetables or sourness of some fruits. Also, they’re learning that they’re independent people, and power struggles ensue. And you will never win a battle of wills with a toddler! If a child says “I’m not trying it because I don’t like it”, you could respond with, “maybe you didn’t like it when you were 3, but you might like it now that you’re 4”. Then bite your tongue and let them figure it out!
A little known fact…
When you’re battling with a child at mealtime, their bodies release adrenaline to prepare for the battle, and adrenaline tastes bitter, and they then may associate that bitter taste with the new food they’re trying. So keep mealtime neutral and pleasant as much as possible.
It helps to be consistent. Find a couple of simple rules and stick with them. Aside from “if you’re not hungry, you don’t have to eat,” my favorite rule is “snacks are fruits and vegetables”. We started telling our kids that because we were tired of doing the negotiations of “don’t have a snack, it’s almost dinner” or “no, you can’t have cookies for a snack”.
“Snacks are Fruits or Vegetables”
If a snack is a fruit or vegetable, then if they are hungry before dinner and they fill up on fruits and vegetables, who cares? And kids catch on pretty quickly to those rules, so you can just repeat the rule and the arguments become less frequent.
Another golden rule I like to talk to parents about is the 80/20 rule – if 80% of the time you make sure your child is eating very healthy, you can relax about the other 20% of the time. Birthday parties, holidays, cookie baking, going out for ice cream, there are some of our favorite memories. And you don’t need to stress out about them. Find a way to let yourself and your child enjoy those treats.
Make Special Treats or Days Special
The best way to do that is to make sure it’s really an occasional thing instead of an everyday occurrence. It also is a good way to model a healthy relationship with food. This is where we could get into the stuff we carry around as adults. The stuff you don’t want your children to have to struggle with. No food is evil or off limits. Moderation is key. We need to teach kids to pay attention to how foods make us feel and respond appropriately. If I eat too much cake and don’t feel good, I might say, “my tummy hurts. I think I had too much cake and not enough vegetables today.”
One of my favorite holidays is Halloween. Our small town has a parade down the main street before trick or treating. I love seeing all the kids in their costumes. I love walking around town with my kids and visiting with people and watching how excited my kids get when they get treats they usually don’t get. I also LOVE heath bars and butterfingers…and my kids know it. They pile them up to give to me at the end of the night.
I struggled with what to do with my kids’ eating on Halloween. What we came up with was this: eat whatever you want tonight. Seriously, there are no limits and I don’t try to pretend that it’s healthy in any way. It’s just one night. There’s trading and trying different candies (and stories about the candy we used to like as kids). We watch them each starting to eat with gusto, then slowing down and eventually saying, “I think I’m done.” They have a pile of candy in front of them and they are choosing not to eat it because they are listening to their bodies. What a gift to learn that skill as a child!
Bonus Tip: Be Aware of Body Image
You may have noticed that I haven’t talked at all about body size influencing the messages we’re trying to send. There has been no talk about obesity or weight.
That’s because these are healthy habits for EVERYONE, regardless of size.
Like many girls and women, I grew up wanting to be thinner. Even knowing what I know, I still have to fight the urge to obsess over weight and body image. My husband grew up wanting to be bigger. My kids have a mix of our body types and I am very tuned into the messages they hear from others. I’ve heard people tell my children when they’re eating treats that they can probably eat anything they want because they “don’t have to worry about gaining weight.” When they’re eating vegetables, people will say, “no wonder you’re so skinny, you eat so healthy.”
I remember being told as a pre-teen that I shouldn’t have a cookie because I was looking a little chunky. Fast-forward two hours later and I was praised when I finished everything on my plate. Talk about mixed messages! I have families with kids who fall on various lines on growth curves, and they all get the same messages about healthy habits.
We should be teaching our kids that when they’re hungry, they should eat foods that fuel their bodies for what they want to do, regardless of what their bodies look like.
How great was this series?!? Dr. Fox is on point with all of her pro tips! I just had to leave my two-cents about the fact she pointed out above. Because here’s the deal – It’s about the behaviors, not the weight.
In case you missed last week’s post, you can catch it here.
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. On the side, she created a cookbook that can be used as a fundraiser for schools. Check it out at www.superkidsbook.com.