Sanity-restoring strategies for developing healthy eating habits
Story by Mara Severin
On one side: Your small child armed only with a stubborn streak and the word “No!” On the other side: You - armed with only a broccoli spear and a dwindling supply of patience. It’s an epic battle. And the battleground is the dinner table.
For generations, parents have begged, bribed and threatened their children in an often vain effort to make them eat lovingly prepared, nutritionally balanced meals. Well, the stakes haven’t changed. But the rules of engagement have. In fact, according to Alaska’s pediatric nutrition specialists, its time for a ceasefire.
Children’s choices: It’s ok to just say no
“Let your children pick and choose at the dinner table,” says Margaret Duggan, registered dietitian and program coordinator of WIC. “They may only eat one or two foods, but that’s ok.” You should decide what goes onto the table, she says, but your pint-sized diners should choose whether and how much to eat of it.
“Respect food differences,” says Julianne Minarik, pediatric dietitian at The Children’s Hospital at Providence. “But encourage your children to be polite when they don’t want something,” she says. Often, children will make a fuss over food they don’t like at mealtimes. In return, they get a whole lot of attention. “Have them say politely that they don’t want any and then respect it,” she says. “Dinnertime shouldn’t be stressful,” she adds.
Familiar foods and tiny tastes
Offer one new food alongside familiar, tried-and-true choices, says Margaret. “It can take 10, 15, even up to 20 times before a child will try a new food,” she says. In the meantime, don’t worry if your children are caught in a rut. “If they only eat peas and carrots, just keep putting them out there,” she says. “And don’t worry about it.”
Also, tiny tastes are ok. “Make a game of it,” suggests Julianne. “Have a one bite club.” Maybe one-bite earns a sticker and every five stickers earn a non-food reward.
Just desserts are, well, just desserts
Margaret and Julianne both caution against using food as a reward for your children. “Food is food is food,” says Margaret, “I don’t care if it’s steak or mashed potatoes or strawberry shortcake. It’s food.” It shouldn’t have an emotionally charged connotation, she says, which can lead to emotional eating into adulthood. “If you want to reward your children read them a story, take them to Bouncin’ Bears, go for a walk, go to a park, or go sledding,” she says.
Julianne agrees: “Don’t give food power.”
“Family meals are so important,” says Margaret. Children learn so much from watching their parents eat. And, she says, “kids with older siblings tend to want to try new things.” Your children are watching you. Dinnertime is an opportunity for them to see you making good choices. But remember, that’s not all they see, says Margaret. If you try something you don’t like, “don’t make a face,” she warns.
Don’t ‘supersize’ – even the healthy stuff
Portion sizes are becoming outsized in America’s restaurants and in our homes. A serving size for children between 1 and 5 is a tablespoon per year of the child’s age, says Margaret. “Heaping food on the plate is counterproductive,” she says, “especially when introducing new foods. It can be overwhelming to a child.” This is a case, she says, where “less is more.”
Use kid-sized plates and dishware to keep portion-sizes under control, says Julianne. They can also make it easier for a child to feed herself.
There is no bad food – just bad habits
“In my profession we say there is no bad food,” says Margaret. What matters is how much and how often you eat it. “If you take your kids to McDonalds, try to be a smart shopper,” she says. Her suggestions: Order a hamburger, not a cheeseburger. Split one order of fries. Use ketchup and mustard instead of mayonnaise and special sauces. Drink milk or 100-percent orange juice instead of soda.
Learning to manage sweets and treats is as important as managing vegetables, she says. “You don’t want to create any forbidden fruits.” Often, she says, kids who are on very strict, no-sugar diets become obsessed with sweets and gorge on them when they have the opportunity.
Shopping assistants and sous chefs
When your kids are underfoot, turn them into underlings. Get them to help with the family’s food preparation starting in the grocery store. Let them choose the most tempting fruits and vegetables – the reddest apples, the crispest lettuce. “Shop on the outer aisles of the store first,” advises Julianne, and leave the prepared foods in the middle aisles for last. “Those boxes scream to the kids ‘pick me! pick me! pick me!’ ”
At home, let your kids peel and chop and stir (with kid-safe tools). “Cut foods into interesting shapes,” suggests Julianne. Make carrot flowers (steam them first), banana wheels, broccoli trees, or cauliflower clouds, she suggests. “It’s all about making it interesting and making it attractive on the plate.” (Check out the Funny Food book on page 43.)
Let your kids take ownership of the meal. “Have them draw the menu,” says Julianne. Let them name the restaurant. Have a special of the day. The more involved they are the more invested they’ll be in the meal.
After all, she says, “you have your kids for such a short time. It’s not going to last forever. Before you know it, they’re out of the house.” So enjoy your meals together, talk to each other, try new things, and put the food fights behind you. And save those menus to look at for when your children are out of the house and making healthy choices on their own.