As a mom of two young girls, ages 3.5 and 5, I’ve overcame many hurdles in the kitchen when it comes to my kids. They are both very healthy kiddos, but they have very different preferences in taste when it comes to mealtimes. My youngest is all about the cheese and protein life; she could live off lunchmeat and string cheese if I let her. My oldest is my veggie and fruit queen; she’d rather have berries over carbs any day. That said, there will be days to weeks at a time where they’ll both decide they’re completely over a food that they were all about just hours before. Bottom line, kids, changing tastes, aversion to foods, and how to involve them in the process of choices can be overwhelming. I hope to spark some ideas you may not have thought of yet!
I truly believe that teaching children healthy habits starts at home, and the earlier the better. While the majority of children may learn in school a bit about how important fruits and vegetables are, it’s vital that they also have healthy meals and snacks available to them at home AND that they get the opportunity to help select and prepare those foods. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans have the same general suggestions for adults that they do for children. Daily nutrition in general should revolve mostly around proteins, fruits, vegetables, grains (preferably whole) and dairy, with limited added sugars and saturated or trans fats.
From the time your child is able to eat solid foods and have clear opinions on them, a great idea is offering a variety of different healthy new foods for them to try, rather than falling into the rut of “Well, they like this already, so I’m sticking with it.”. As children express interest in colors, a fun way to incorporate that into healthy eating is to have different colored options and talk about the food itself as well as the color. For instance, red tomatoes and strawberries, orange oranges and carrots, green peas and kiwi, yellow bell pepper and banana, and so on. Sit with your child and ask them what other things in the world correlate with the colors of their food. Smoothies made with low fat yogurt are an option to make a colorful and nutritious drink for children less likely to be as adventurous with their taste testing of individual foods.
A close mama friend of mine has children with sensory issues. Her tip if you’re dealing with food introduction while also managing sensory issues is to always make sure at least one item on your child’s plate is something that “Isn’t new or scary – Something I know they’ll eat. That way mealtime isn’t overwhelming and I know they’ll eat something!” Also note that children in general are slower to accept new textures and tastes, so just because they try and don’t like (or refuse to try) something once doesn’t mean you should give up on that item. Try it again a few days later, always using encouraging words but not forcing them or making ultimatums.
On the topic of ultimatums, it’s so easy as parents and caregivers to fall into the trap of mealtime negotiations. For the longest time, and before I realized it was doing more harm than good, I fell into the trap of “If you don’t eat this, than no special treat.” Or “If you eat all of your food you can pick out a special treat.” The problem with that attitude is you’re teaching your child that A) They should get rewarded for eating healthy food. This leads to the belief that healthy food is more of a chore or a punishment, where sugary sweets are a treat. In reality, you want kids to look forward to healthy food that they enjoy. B) It doesn’t allow them to figure out hungriness vs fullness in the sense you’re basically telling them your expectation is they eat every speck of food on their plate. That can be problematic because just like us, there are days that kids are less hungry or hungrier than others. Instead, encouraging kids to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full is much more beneficial in the long run. You can always offer seconds, but it’s hard to undo the stomach ache of a child who ate too much because they felt obligated to do so.
In the next blog post, I’ll dive into specific age appropriate ways that your kids can be involved at home, including tasks and recipes they can assist with OR make themselves! Hope you’ll return for Part Two!