As hard as it is to fight your junk food urges, if you have kids, you probably know that getting Junior to make smart food choices is triple the challenge. It’d be excellent if you could just yell, “Hey, you! Eat your spinach!” But you can’t. As is the case when dealing with most aspects of a child’s life, it takes commitment, patience, and some serious cunning to steer them down the right path.
If you’ve watched the “Healthy Eats” disc of the ChaLEAN Extreme program, you know that Chalene and her husband Brett made a commitment to teach their son Brock and daughter Sierra the benefits of a solid diet. Here, in Chalene’s words, is a little insight on how they did it.
1. Portion control.
Digging into the entire box of goldfish crackers, or any other kid’s snack, is a bad idea. So it’s a good idea to empty out that box into smaller ziplock bags, for better portion control. Do this the moment the treats are pulled from the grocery store bags! This helps children understand what a healthy portion looks like. Meals and portion sizes have increased nearly 40 percent over the last decade. As parents, we have to teach our children that it’s not deprivation—it’s proper nutrition.
2. Sneak in the whole grains.
Use whole-grain pasta and brown rice, but don’t tell your kids. They’ll never know the difference. No one, especially children, likes change when it comes to food. I like to use the “stealth” approach, i.e., fly low under the radar! When I switched my kids from regular pasta to whole-grain, whole wheat pasta, I did it in stages. First, I added just a 1/4 cup of the healthier noodles. Each time I added more, until eventually they were eating the whole-grain stuff and had no idea! They still have no idea! We had spaghetti at a restaurant the other night (the enriched-flour kind), and the kids said the restaurant pasta was “weird…kinda slimy!” How fantastic is that? The key is making the changes gradually and not making a big deal about them.
3. Lead by example.
If you’re giving your kids apples but you’re eating Snickers, it’s never going to work. Following a healthy diet needs to be part of the commitment of good parenting. Never use the “D” [“Diet”] word in front of children. When you do, and they see you eating healthily, they assume that healthy food is something you’re forced to eat as a punishment. Lead by example. Say, “Mommy is eating this for more energy and to be stronger.” Make negative comments about food without nutritional value. For example, when I do have the occasional “treat,” I will often say, “Wow, that piece of cake gave me a sugar crash and a headache. Now I feel so sluggish!” Use positive comments about healthy food without reference to weight. Try, “I feel so much stronger when I eat fruit for a snack!”
4. Make food fun.
Taste is something that changes over time. Our taste buds actually change as we age; this explains why some children will eat broccoli and green beans and others find the smell and taste worse than starvation! Continually introduce healthy food and find unique ways to introduce the food in stages. For example, your children might try a small amount of broccoli mixed in with their mac and cheese. Once you’ve gotten them to accept that as a regular staple, transition to broccoli with a creamy cheese soup. Eventually, your children may acquire a taste for steamed broccoli! Can you imagine the day? But starting right out of the gates with a big plate of steamed broccoli in front of a child who doesn’t eat green things is asking for a battle! Baby steps!
5. Don’t pressure kids to eat.
Present the food, but don’t force kids to eat it. Making demands will just polarize your kids, while letting them eat healthy foods on their own terms leads to healthy habits. If your first attempt doesn’t work, don’t take it personally or assume that this is a life-or-death situation. Take a deep breath, let it go, and try it again another day—try serving those healthy foods prepared in new ways. It often takes several times before your child will decide to try something new. Oh, and I don’t know if this works for everyone, but I find that my children will often try new food with their grandparents and at their friends’ houses, foods that they won’t try with me! Ask what new foods they tried and then offer to prepare them, and get excited about their willingness to try new foods.
6. Be careful what you say.
Everything a woman says about her body is like writing on the slate of her female child’s self-esteem. I volunteer to teach exercise to children of all ages in the public school system. I have personally heard children as young as 6 say, “I’m fat!” Or, “I have a big belly like my mommy.” Or, “My mommy doesn’t want you to see her because she got fat.” Seriously! Not only do kids hear what you’re saying on the phone to your girlfriend, but they are projecting those negative images on themselves. It’s unhealthy for you and your young children to be thinking anything other than positive thoughts about this amazing body that God gave you! Do your best to serve as a positive role model by speaking lovingly about your body and your journey to health!
Food shouldn’t be a source of angst for your family. Try to get your kids to eat healthier, but be creative, consistent, and calm. The bigger you make the issue of eating healthy foods, the more resistance you may feel. Play it cool. There are many studies proving that you can place salad on the table 10 to 15 times before a child will decide to try it. Remember that “insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.” If it didn’t work the first time, try a different approach, a new way to prepare and disguise the food, and, again, remember the importance of doing this in slow, small steps.
8. Get kids involved.
Let them help cook meals and learn to read food labels. Teach them what’s too much sugar and what’s an appropriate amount of fat. Teach your children what purpose carbohydrates serve in moderation and what they turn into when we eat them in excess. Pick one item and just find that on your labels. For example, this week my children have been looking at the sodium content on labels. They get a kick out of trying to find the canned soup with the lowest sodium content or shocking each other by reading a label with an off-the-chart level of sodium. Food shouldn’t be a mystery. I meet adults every day who have no idea how much sodium, carbs, or protein they should be consuming, let alone how many calories. Let’s create a more educated generation when it comes to food!
9. Think daily.
Young children have shifts when they are hungry. A child will not starve himself or herself. We are so focused on eating huge portions three times a day, but naturally, most children will eat one full meal and graze at other meals. Avoid the bad habit of saying, “One more bite,” or, “Clean your plate.” These phrases teach our children that they are good if they eat more, when what we want to teach our children is to respond to their bodies when they feel full. Young children eat to provide themselves with energy. Eating to soothe sadness, eating to stuff ourselves, or eating because it’s simply that time of the day are all bad habits we pass along to our children.
10. Read up on nutrition.
Read books about food. Explain where it comes from. I highly recommend Eat This Not That! for Kids!: Be the Leanest, Fittest Family on the Block! It has giant pictures of common kid foods. It’s fun to make a game out of learning which foods are best! Also, check out MyFitnessPal.com, which lists the calories for most every food you can imagine, not to mention the nutritional information for nearly every restaurant in America!