I’m often asked about how I get my kids to eat the way I do. Especially by parents that have picky eaters. All across America, the diet of the ordinary kid is void of nutrients, full of sugar and dependent on processed foods. Some kids are addicted to some of these harmful foods. If this doesn’t describe your child, good job! Just as my title is spoofing another Mom battle, this is just that. A battle. Except, it’s uphill and full of land mines. It’s us against the supermarket. It’s us against the food industry. It’s us against the food regulations.
There are so many things I do wrong as a parent, but diet and nutrition is the one thing I’m proud of.
It’s hard to be successful with healthy diets for ourselves and even harder ensuring our kids eat well. You do something as simple as send your child to school with a healthy snack only to be bombarded with complaints of why they can’t have what their classmates are having. My kindergartener hit me with this the other day, during week two of kindergarten: “all the other kids have packages at snack time and all I have is this dumb and nasty piece of fruit”. I admit, it hurt. But I didn’t react, nor did I give her a package.
Us Moms need to stand up and be strong, together, so it’s not so hard anymore. This is a battle worth fighting!
As you can see by the length of this post, I am pretty passionate about starting kids off the right way.
The nicest thing you can do for a pregnant friend or soon-to-be Dad is forward this blog post. It’s so much harder to reverse bad eating than it is to never begin it. Some of us, even have to reverse it for ourselves, first.
How it Began with my Family:
How do I get my kids to eat this stuff?
Funny that I am asked this particular question because one of the motivators for me, to pursue a healthy diet, was because of my kid. Even though she had no idea yet, my eldest had a weight issue, from birth. I know what it’s like to get the notice home from the school nurse, telling me that my child’s BMI slightly exceeds the national average, for children in her age group. It’s devastating to realize your child is larger (different) than the other kids her age. We try not to compare our children for our own sanity, but we all do it, some. Especially when the doctor seems to make it his job, to compare her in black and white on the growth chart, every time we walk through the door. Why isn’t my darling daughter as thin as the other kids? I love her just as much as the other Moms love theirs.
Come to find out, a lot of our baby obesity has to do with formula and I’ll be blogging on this in the future, but it really is a blog post on its own.
It was a slow process, but once I made up my mind, I began to clean up our diets a little bit, at a time.
I took a step forward. I started making changes. First we eliminated juice. Somehow along the way, not even sure how it happened, I began to think juice was o.k. if we watered it down. All the Moms of 2003 were doing it! The Reality: in an overwhelming majority, juice drinking takes them one more step toward obesity, insulin resistance and high blood pressure. That’s the truth of it. If your child is drinking juice, consider eliminating it. The only thing it does, is inspire their taste buds to expect sweet.
When our taste buds are trained to expect sugar, we can all guess what happens: an obesity epidemic.
About one-quarter of children between 2 and 5 are overweight or obese. This number is expected to climb.
One third of school aged children are overweight or obese. Again, this number is expected to climb.
My efforts continued, slowly, over time. Another big step that we accomplished right away, eliminating butter on our veggies. Seems small, but it’s vital. Our children’s taste buds learn to eat the way we teach. Something every good southern woman was taught at home, was how to butter corn and dollop butter on top of green beans. Why did I think veggies needed animal fat on top? Because that’s the way I was served as a child. It’s simple. Hopefully I’m breaking this cycle and my kids won’t even think of putting butter on broccoli. My approach to broccoli today is with a little bit of fresh lemon juice and kosher salt.
Think about what cycles we are teaching our children with our habits.
I kept reading about food and nutrition. It took a while for me to learn and then to implement, but the progress was steady. Each new piece of information made me more aware. The real change came when I committed to healthy eating for myself, a vital piece. But once I made the change for myself, it was only natural that my kids follow.
In the end, my life is not any different from that of my kindergartener’s, comparing her piece of fruit to those yummy looking Scrabble Cheeze-Its. Moms around me eat things that look good and smell good and lots of it. But I don’t do it just because they are. I make my own choices because I am deciding to be this way, it’s not who I am. I decide to eat healthy to feel better, be better and look better. It was really tough at first, but not anymore. And for me, the choice (and my life!) is worth any of that sacrifice I made in the beginning.
Today, my daughter is still slightly bigger than her peers, but I know in my heart that her diet is what it should be, so I know she’s healthy inside. She has a natural tendency to over-eat or over-indulge and it’s something we are learning to manage. I talk openly about it with her. Over indulging on healthy food is better than the alternative. Some of us have a harder time noticing when we are full and some of us over eat out of boredom or comfort. My daughter does all of these things, but it’s not an excuse to eat unhealthy, but more of a motivator to do the opposite.
It makes it a lot easier to be a happy mom, knowing you’re doing what you can, to make them healthy. The hard part is managing her expectation of herself. I try to teach her to love herself, no matter her size. I encourage her to stop comparing herself with everyone else. We all have different body types. Weight is not the only health indicator, but it is a big one. Most of the time, it serves as the red flag, indicative of a problem. But some of it can be genetics and body type. Being healthy should be the goal, not skinny.
We do our best each day to eat healthy and that’s good enough.
How to Stand By Your Decisions:
Moms, my kids are just like yours. Every night at dinner, there is a complaint. Never fails. Good grief, sometimes it comes from my husband! It does aggravate me, don’t get me wrong, but it never changes anything. I don’t offer a solution, but I do ignore it or offer solace, like “that stinks for you”. I try not to let them deflate me. They know that’s the only meal they’re having. I have seen them leave the dinner table after only a few bites, knowing they are still hungry, but I stand my ground. A lot of times, I leave their plate for them to come back and change their minds. I am not going to be bullied or threatened by the possibility of their starvation (which by the way, all doctors agree, it’s not even a possibility, at all). I am so saddened by the Mom out there that allows their child to eat junk, so they will eat. I understand it, but at the same time, I don’t. The truth is, your child is healthier with less food than to ingest empty calorie foods that make them full, but not energized. If you stick with offering nutritious foods, they will eventually be forced to choose healthy options that they like. They will make the decision on their own. And then, guess what, you’ll find yourself making the foods they favor more often. Carrots? Ok, we’ll have carrots, a lot. Just like that. Sometimes, they’ll only eat one item on their plates and sometimes they ask for seconds. That’s fine too. Keep in mind, meat and grain should be limited to one serving. Most nights, I serve veggies for dinner and only veggies. Mainly because, the other meals have grains and, other pyramid items, and it’s harder to fit the veggies into those other meals. Dinner is the easiest meal to fill the veggie requirement.
And remember, their bodies will make them eat, eventually. I really believe they should have choices, just like we do. They should be able to refuse food if they want to. The rule of my table: you must try everything on your plate with at least one bite and you must have 3-bites of something, before you leave – that’s it. I don’t broadcast the rule, I just keep it in my mind. Truth is, most nights, they eat what’s on their plate and some nights, they don’t. Either way, I know I’m not giving them pasta or bread to fill their tummies. Tomorrow is another day and they will have plenty of room for more nutritious things when they are hungry. I know it’s controversial, but this is how I do it and when someone asks me, I tell them.
Another point worth mentioning is that research has proven it takes an average of 8-times of putting something in front of your child before they like it or even open their minds up to trying it.
The biggest and most effective advice I can give to anyone listening, is to inform your kids. I have so many open and honest conversations about food with my children that I am sometimes very shocked by their knowledge. I love it when I hear them tell their dad why he’s making a healthy choice. I love it when they ask me “mom, am I making a healthy choice?”. YES! I think this is the single most effective way to keep your kids healthy. Give them some responsibility for their bodies.
They need to be informed if we expect them to make good decisions.
Talk often. About foods that are not good for you and why. About foods that are good for you and why. They love to eat “super foods”. And my kiddos love the splurges that aren’t even splurges. Red Beans and Brown Rice, for instance. Nothing bad for you in the bowl, but it’s a nice variation from plates of veggies or fish.
Make it Fun:
You can also make meal times fun by implementing some of these things or use your imagination to come up with better games:
~ Meatless Mondays – this used to be in the old Family Circle Magazines years ago, but it was a great idea and still is
~ Raw Food Tuesdays – we actually do this one and it’s a lot of fun – nothing served at dinner has been cooked – period – use your imagination
~ Family Veggie Day – each person in the family get’s their pick of a vegetable on the plate – let them shop for it and help prepare it
~ Sushi Sundays!
~ Rainbow Day – no color can be on the plate twice – you’ll be surprised how fun this one can be
The kids actually get a kick out of knowing it’s Rainbow Day or Raw Food Tuesday and start to look forward to being involved in dinner. They also get a kick out of seeing their suggestions or input on the dinner table.
Avoid the Biggest Pitfalls:
One very important thing I want to cover about kids and food: do not serve bread. This is one of those things I take a huge stance on and where I might lose a few of you. I know this might be hard at first, but if you truly want your child to ingest more nutrients that will nurture their tiny little bodies, trust me, omit the bread from most meals. A great rule that I live by is one serving per day, and then I feel o.k. about letting them have the one serving of it. It is a great source of grain and fiber, which is absolutely necessary, but not at every meal. Whole wheat, whole grain bread once per day is sufficient and nutritious. Any more than that and it only fills them up. If my kids have a waffle for breakfast, they don’t have a sandwich for lunch. Choose a meal to serve breads and skip it during the others.
Try to avoid what is actually dessert, disguised as yogurt. Chances are, you’re serving pure sugar to your child, every time they eat a yogurt. Meaning, it’s pretty BAD for them. You can choose one of two brands of plain greek yogurt and add fruits and nuts, then it is actually nutritious. FAGE or Chobani. That’s pretty much it. ALL the other brands contain preservatives and / or sugar. Even some of the FAGE and Chobani’s have sugar, so be careful. If your child won’t eat these varieties, avoid yogurt, all together. Unless, you are serving it as dessert, every now and then. Choose other things to get protein from. Tip: process frozen, but thawed, strawberries in a food processor and add to their plain yogurt.
Juice should be avoided, if possible. It should be viewed as a treat. I know, it is contrary to what you believe, and me too, before I knew better. Fruit juice is: full of the sugar of fruit without the nutritional pulp and fiber. If you need juice, make it a part of the law of moderation and make it a treat, just like you would treat a soda.
Keep in mind that as you make small changes, their taste buds also change. In the beginning, my daughter refused plain steel-cut oatmeal because she was so used to tasting sugar. Now, she eats it and it’s because her taste buds have been re-trained. Just because your child turns their nose once, should not discourage you in the future. Taste buds are constantly evolving.
Teach by Example:
Kids emulate their parents. As much as this is sometimes a pain, it is so true! They will watch you closely and you are their primary teacher. They will see the choices that you make in your life and it will guide them more than anything else. If you choose unsweetened cereals, they will too. If you sweeten your tea, they will too. And there is nothing worse than knowing your parents want you to do as they say, not as they do. Kids are smart and human.
Kids don’t like to feel controlled. In order to alleviate the feeling of control, I compromise with my daughters. We make good choices most of the time, for sweet treats some of the time. For instance, one morning on the weekend, Saturday or Sunday, not both, they are allowed sugar cereal. They go to the grocery store and pick their cereal and I don’t try to change their minds, nor do I get involved at all, even if it has 30 grams of sugar per serving. I just look away. It gives them a little control and teaches them that moderation is good. Control=Choices. They can choose between skim milk or water to drink with meals. They can choose the type of fruits they like and which one to take to school that day. They also have a voice about dinner choices. Not a lot of input, but I do listen. I try to make their favorites, often.
LET THEM EAT CAKE!
On the same note as compromise is the theory of letting them be kids. I let my kids drink soda, sometimes when we are at a restaurant. I let them have donuts for breakfast once in a while and ice cream for dinner. I have it with them. It’s fun, sometimes. Ironically, they usually feel sick and ask for “real food”. I also let them go to Grandma’s and turn a blind eye! The point is, we all let go, sometimes.
How do I get started?
Here are my suggestions on how to succeed. And remember, it’s a very slow process to change a diet, so don’t give up. Take two steps forward and one step back, but always keep trying and moving in the right direction.
- Begin by making up your mind. Decide it’s the future you want and go get it. Decide it’s the future they deserve and go get it. Decide.
- Start a conversation. Begin talking to them about why you are changing the diet of the family, not just them. Have an honest conversation. Try not to use words like: calorie, fat, skinny, diet. Do use words and phrases like this: nutritious, healthy, our bodies need…, making choices, healthy vs. unhealthy, good vs. bad, nutrients, minerals and vitamins, fuel and energy. Make it a game. Can they guess which is healthier?
- Study what they’re eating for several days. Get informed. Processed foods like Cheeze-Its, fruit cups, most yogurt, soda, juice, sugary cereals, fruit snacks and granola bars should be eliminated. Make note of consumption of these things and be prepared to have replacement snack options. Nuts, pretzels, plain graham crackers, fruits, celery with light cream cheese, light laughing cow with Triscuits, apple with peanut butter and raisins, etc…
- Study the research on why that list of foods I noted above are bad for your kids. It’s easier to ignore it and say “well, every kid lives on granola bars”. BUT when you’re educated about it, you won’t say that and it makes it much easier to stick with it and make it happen. Plus, it gives you ammunition when they ask why they cannot have the bad-for-you food. You simply say: because it has too much sugar or too many preservatives, etc…
- Go through your pantry. However you can accomplish it, just go through your pantry and get rid of it. Better yet, enlist help. Have them put on their super hero uniform and eliminate the bad guys. This can be a huge learning lesson. Is this good or bad food? Why?
- Omit the major offenders right away. The easy changes, first. Serve only skim milk, for instance. If you need to, use half skim, half whatever and slowly whittle it down until it’s pure skim. No one over the age of 2 years, needs fat in their milk. Choose whole wheat, whole grain breads with minimal ingredients and watch the high fructose corn syrup and sugar. Use one slice of whatever you’re accustom to using and one slice whole wheat for a few weeks. Then make the switch. Do not buy fruit snacks, fruit cups or applesauce. Get them used to eating whole fruits, instead. Make homemade snack bags instead of pre packaged. Snack sized bags filled with unsweetened cereals, pretzels or even goldfish (know I’m not a fan of goldfish, but if it keeps the rest of the day healthy, go for it). I realize you can’t avoid all processed.
- Make better choices. Choose natural ingredients over those you don’t recognize. Compare the back of a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips to that of a bag of Cape Cod Potato Chips. You will see exactly what I’m talking about. Choose corn tortilla chips over Fritos. Avoid MSG, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, sugar, sodium, hydrogenated oils and preservatives.
- Cut processed and convenience foods, if not out, down. This might be the hardest to eliminate, but nets the biggest health reward. You can do it! They taste like crap after you’ve been weened off, anyway. I swear. Simply throw it all away. Or donate it to the local food pantry, if they’ll take it.
- Fill the fruit basket until it spillith over. The choices should be ripe, ready to eat and colorful. Fruit tastes best if left on the counter, un-refrigerated. If you need to, at first, cut it up. But, teaching them to eat whole fruits in their natural form as children, make them more likely to continue into college and beyond. It’s easier to eat, thus more likely to get eaten. Plus, it’s portable and ready to go. What’s easier than that?
- Unless it’s a real treat, like the monthly ice cream outing, limit or omit sugar. Anything with more than 10-grams should be eliminated as a daily choice and not even available in the pantry. Keep snacks fresh and as close to nature as possible and the sugar won’t be an issue.
- Take one big step at a time. Cut out all sugar for breakfast, for instance. Cut dessert – make ONE sugary sweet available, once per week and explain that we do not need dessert every day and certainly not at every meal. Let the compromise be: they are allowed all the fresh fruit they wish to have, which is technically sugar but also has vital nutrition. My kids are happy with the compromise that they are allowed to buy ice cream at school, once per week.
- Avoid anything with the terms: low-fat, low carb, 100 calorie or sugar-free (sugar-free is an option for diabetics, but if you’re not diabetic, avoid artificial sugar just as you would regular sugar). Read and learn. Do not assume anything. Low fat usually means added sugar to cover the taste, just as low-calorie usually means an ingredients list the length of your arm. Those 100 calorie packs should be banned from the shelves. Totally full of crap. Read the labels with open eyes and you’ll be so amazed at the stuff America eats.
- Don’t give up! Even if you have setbacks. They will get with the program. Be strong and every time you want to give up because you’re tired of fighting it, remind yourself: their future lives are worth it. Remember the obese American? It could be your child. 60% of adults are overweight and unfit. And a large percentage of those are considered obese.
- When you make a mistake and find out you’ve been making a blunder, fix it and move on. Don’t sweat it. We all learn from our mistakes.
- Remember that informed choice is the goal, not perfection. For instance, I buy regular mayo. I don’t eliminate all the things that are important for enjoying our food, but instead, use less to allow it to remain. We rarely use it but when we do, we use the real thing.
- Make a game of it. Make a family link chain with construction paper strips and a stapler. Hang it from your kitchen or dining room curtain rod. Every time they make a healthy choice, they get to add one link. Write their names on the links or color code them for healthy competition amongst family members. Fill the window with construction links and be proud!
- If you fall off the wagon for a while, vacations or moves can do it, it’s ok. Get back on. Go through the pantry, AGAIN. Or have the family meeting, AGAIN. Or re-instate the family link chain for motivation or whatever it takes. Say “we aren’t doing so well and we need to fix it”. Just don’t give up. All of you are worth it!
- And last: remember that you have the power. You are the Mom. You are the shopper. You know what’s best. You rock! Be the Tiger!
Finally, Find Balance:
One of the things that insures my success is balance and moderation. If you’re not a stranger to my blog, you may have heard the term moderation before. It’s a fundamental piece of success for me, so I try to encourage you to embrace it as well. If I had to be 100% of anything, I’d fail. Perfection is not possible for any of us. So, do as you tell your children: do your best. Slowly, you’ll start to notice your scale tipped on the healthier side. Remember, you can’t be perfect and if you are, your child might be weird! Allow them a little to keep them normal and not so envious of all the other kids foods and feel good about it. Read the paragraph above, LET THEM EAT CAKE. Plus, that’s the silver lining, you don’t want to miss. When you make healthy choices, most of the time, you don’t feel badly about the nights when you have pizza or ice cream. You can actually enjoy it.