Most parents struggle with their children’s eating at some stage and ask, “How can I develop healthy eating habits in my children?” Avoiding the healthy and craving the inappropriate is pretty normal for kids. And having suffered at the hands of this problem, and witnessed myself turning into a shaking, irrational monster at the speed of a melting ice-cream on a summer’s day, I’ve taken a good hard look at some of the emotions raging within. And it seems to me that a volatile blend of fear and lack of understanding are the principle causes of all those tantrums. Here lie the secrets to my solution.
It’s important to try to distance ourselves from the emotional, and focus instead on the rational. I suggest following this three-step process: 1. Accept the Realities. 2. Spot the Opportunities. 3. Take Advantage of those Opportunities whilst keeping in mind the end goal; guiding children towards developing healthy eating habits for life.
The Realities: Eating Habits and Children
- You can’t force a child to eat (nor should you try)
- You can’t control children’s eating all of the time – whether your child is at school or elsewhere, they’re going to be away from your influence some of the time
- Children rely on you (or other adults) for their food and are more likely to eat when they’re hungry. In fact encouraging children to eat when they’re not hungry is a really bad idea, not just because it’s stressful and difficult, but because it teaches them to ignore what their bodies tell them –responding appropriately to hunger and satiety is necessary to maintain a healthy body weight
- Children are far more likely to eat it if they’ve been involved in the choice of food and its preparation
- Lots of children eat a poor diet and your own children will inevitably come into contact, and consequently be influenced by some of them.
The Opportunities: Devloping Healthy Eating Habits in Children
- When you accept the realities it releases stress and allows you to respond more objectively to the problem, and that puts some of the control back into your hands
- You’ll need to develop some valuable skills – flexibility, self-discipline and the ability to negotiate are worth their weight in gold for parents!
- Building a greater awareness of good eating habits benefits the whole family, not just the children
- You have control over the food available to children in the home – that means you control the food available to your children most of the time
- You can gain maximum control over your child’s eating when you cook and prepare the food your children eat, rather than relying on packaged/processed food and food prepared by others
Children model the behaviour of their parents, which gives you a great deal of influence over the habits your children develop, and, a key point here, modelling should be achieved without fuss or focus – just do it and they will copy!
- You can teach new skills by giving children choices within your limits and by encouraging them to help in the cooking and preparing of food, which in turn helps them to feel empowered and may even reduce your workload!
- When your children see other kids eating inappropriate food; foods you don’t allow them, yet you stay true to your principles, you are not only modelling the self-confidence to make your own decisions based on your own values, but also showing them that you love them. They are very likely to moan, but they’ll still respect, and ultimately love you in return for it, even if it’s not obvious in the short-term. Remind yourself of this fact – often!
- When you carefully limit ‘treat’ foods like lollies and chips you model considered flexibility.
Taking Advantage – but with respect
It’s important to remember something here; it’s great to feel in control of a situation, but don’t abuse that power and turn it into domination. Show respect for your child as an individual with rights, and accept your own responsibility as a parent, whose job it is to guide them into becoming healthy, fulfilled adults. This general approach will, believe it or not, make your job a whole-lot easier!
- Being aware and observant will reveal lots of opportunities! For example, waiting until a child is hungry, spotting regular times when they are hungry, and then presenting the less-popular but highly nutritious foods, like raw vegetables, works like magic!
- If you don’t want them to eat it, don’t buy it! Children have to learn discipline over time, bit by bit; and they need your help. Younger children learn by example and rely on your self-discipline to ‘hold’ them whilst they develop their own
- Reduce your own workload by getting them involved in the preparing of dinner or their school lunch box for example
- Try not to make a fuss, or pressurise them when they reject a particular food. You could say something like ‘that’s ok, you’ll grow to like [food name] in time’. This can then become a self-fulfilling prophesy. And make sure that you don’t stop buying that particular food because they won’t eat it –let them see others eating it
- Make sure YOU eat the food you want them to eat, and make sure they see you doing it. And do it without fuss or focus, for even more effect!
- Let them have very small amounts of junk foods every now and again, but remember to give these foods very little attention so they don’t become ‘special’ – certainly don’t label them as a treat, if you can help it.
Here’s an idea that’s worked well for me; as soon as they arrive home from school I set out bowls of sliced fruit and raw vegetables, nuts, dried fruit, roasted seeds (i.e. highly nutritious food) because I know they’ll be hungry, and they usually tuck in without a murmur. This trick can be used in that difficult period just before dinner too, when the tummy-alarm starts ringing!
Get Kids Involved
This is a great way to achieve a number of goals, so that:
- Children feel empowered
- They’re far more likely to eat their lunch
- They’ll learn how to cook and feed themselves healthily in the process.
The layout in my book The Clever Packed Lunch is designed to be attractive to kids and easy for them to read; I actively encourage parents to involve their kids in the choice and preparation of school lunches so that they’ll be developing skills to establish good eating habits for life. The book shows how to make healthy lunch box food quickly and easily (details below).
The Clever Packed Lunch offers a simple, efficient system for providing healthy packed lunches for busy families with all the recipes photographed in colour. Edited and approved by a Nutritionist, it includes a complete two-week lunch menu, shopping list and hundreds of sandwich ideas. I believe that preparing a daily lunch containing home-made food is an expression of love and, at the same time, it sustains children through the challenges of school life by using healthy ingredients that support learning. The book is available online: Harbord Homeopathic Clinic shop When you purchase the book you also get a free download of the ebook which includes really handy shopping lists, an activity to get children involved in lunch planning and preparing, and can be used on your mobile device for grocery shopping and meal planning on the fly. The menus can be printed for fast, easy reference.