The Challenge of Healthy Eating
Let’s face it, it’s hard enough trying to eat healthy as a fully-grown adult with a developed frontal lobe and a grown-up portion of self-control.
Getting a toddler (with their shocking lack of delayed gratification skills) or a teenager (with their crazy, hormone-fueled, junk food cravings) to eat healthy is nothing short of an olympic event.
Also, it’s not exactly something they teach you. (I don’t actually even know who “they” are.) You go into the hospital pregnant and then they let you take this baby home without passing any scantron tests to make sure you’re prepared to take care of the thing. And anyone who’s taken the hospital classes knows they teach you nothing about how to be a good parent in real life.
While I can by no means claim to be the expert on eating healthy all the time (because “fries” might have been my toddler’s third word after “mama” and “daddy”) I have developed a few really good, battle-tested, mom-approved ways to get your family a little more veggies and a little less junk food.
#1 Smaller Grocery Store Trips, More Often
There’s a horribly inconvenient (yet still very true) rule with food: If it’s good for you, it probably doesn’t last very long and if it lasts forever, it’s probably not good for you.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about you can ask that calorically-catastrophic sugar bomb of a poptart that, if left unattended in your pantry, would probably last through the apocalypse. Yet my fresh raspberries seem to mold on the way home from the grocery store.
When I was growing up my mom was insanely proud of how she could grocery shop for a whole week’s worth of dinners in one grocery run, so when I inherited the title of wife/mom/MasterChef I tried to make that work as well.
As you have most likely experienced, it ended in a truly shameful amount of wasted, spoiled, or uneaten food as plans changed throughout the week. Not to mention I would start running out of necessary items as the week drew to a close and would have to make spur-of-the-moment “uh oh I’m out of butter” trips to the market a few times a week anyway.
About a year into our marriage I gave up the ghost on inheriting my mom’s supershopper title and decided to put the training wheels back on. I shopped every morning and only bought groceries for the dinner I was cooking that night (plus whatever stocks needed replenishing).
It was a truly miraculous transformation.
Not only did I always have everything I needed for dinner, but it enabled me to get fresher, healthier choices because I didn’t have to worry about it going bad before we ate it. PLUS, I ended up saving a good deal on grocery bills!
Long Story Short: Shop in smaller trips, more often.
#2 Leverage the Hunger
While I completely understand that kids are smaller than we adults are (duh), it always takes me by surprise at just how much smaller their stomachs are. I would be perfectly content eating three (or sometimes two) huge meals a day. Not particularly healthy, but content.
My kids eat nonstop. I’m not being hyperbolic here. They. Eat. Constantly. My 13 year-old stepdaughter comes home and makes a snack to eat while she prepares her longer-to-prepare snack. I wish I was kidding.
So, because littler stomachs get empty faster, kids are going to eat multiple times between major meals and, if they’re like mine, they’ll eat whatever is easiest to get. This means if the Doritos are on the child-height shelves, that’s what’s going to get consumed.
However, if you stock the snack areas in your kitchen with healthy crackers, fresh fruit, and cheese sticks, they’re going to make healthier eating choices just by virtue of the fact that they’re hungry and the food is readily available. Even if they hunt for the Doritos every once in a while, the majority of the time they’ll go for what’s easiest to access.
Long Story Short: Kids snack a lot and are lazy. Make sure healthy snacks are highly visible and easily accessible.
#3 Let Them Graze
This is one of the tricks passed down from a very sneaky grandmother of mine. Her theory was to put a plate of cut up fresh fruit out on the counter every morning so that whenever the kids walked by the counter they’d take a few bites of something healthy.
Most of us adults are trained to think of snacking between meals as a sin. However, when the snack you’re eating is fresh strawberries or pre-rinsed grapes I feel like whatever great food deity is up there judging us for snacking might just give us a mulligan.
For kids, this is great because the quick-release, healthy sugar contained in fruit is going to give them great fuel for whatever crayon-throwing, house-destroying shenanigans they have on their toddler to do lists.
After trying this for a while in my house, I must admit that there is very rarely anything left on the plate by dinner time. That means all the yummy fruit I cut up each morning is ending up in my kids’ mouths, even if it happens one piece at a time over the course of the day.
Long Story Short: Leave out a plate of fresh fruit each morning for drive-by snacking.
#4 The Magic of To Go Boxes at Home
This tip actually came from our pediatrician, whom I now think is a child-whispering genius.
Who here has been in the situation where you make a perfectly healthy dinner for your kids, but they aren’t hungry so the healthy dinner goes to waste and then 20 minutes later they magically find their appetites just in time for ice cream?
This was me every single night for the first six months of my toddler’s “real food” career.
Then we went to see our pediatrician. When we explained this dynamic, she said that this is play #1 out of the toddler eating handbook and gave us this easy way to thwart their tiny machiavellian schemes.
When your kid pulls the “not hungry” card, don’t try to force them to eat.
(Pump the breaks, what? If I don’t force her to eat she’ll literally starve, right? Apparently not.)
Instead of forcing them to eat, cheerfully tell them that’s okay, get a tupperware (or some kind of storage box), help them load up their healthy dinner into the box for when they are hungry, and resume eating your dinner as nonchalantly as possible.
I was shocked at how well this actually worked. The first time we tried it, my toddler didn’t even get the lid on the tupperware before she was eating her healthy dinner. Other times she actually did go back to it later.
There were still some times when she still refused to eat, but it was one night in ten rather than every freaking evening.
Long Story Short: When kids pull the “not hungry” card don’t push back but instead give them a to-go box for whenever they do get hungry.
#5 Normalize Healthy Food
Kids are a product of their environment. An embarrassing example of this was when my mom taught me that the little rubber band girls use to tie up their hair was called a “dinghoosie”. Yeah, that’s the only word I knew for a hair tie. I showed up to kindergarten thinking it was a completely normal word that all kids knew.
Not gonna lie, got some pretty weird looks throwing that one around.
The reason this applies to food is that kids will think whatever weird stuff we do is normal because they literally have no basis of comparison.
If we keep healthy food around and munch on healthy snacks ourselves, they’ll think that’s the way life works. If we have a ketchup bottle in our car because we hit the fast food drive through frequently enough for a “car ketchup” to be a necessary thing, they’ll think that’s normal as well.
(Yes, I did have a “car ketchup” phase of my life. See? At least you’re not doing THAT bad as a mom after all. You’re welcome.)
Long Story Short: A kid will believe whatever you portray is “normal”, so set good habits young and they’ll work for you in the long run.
#6 Model Healthy Eating
One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way as a mom is that kids really don’t care what we tell them, what matters is what we do in front of them.
We can tell a child to share a million and a half times without a word of it penetrating their thick skulls, but the second they see you sharing some of your food with their older sibling they’re all the sudden the most giving little critter on the playground.
You can tell them not to yell until you feel like a broken record, but if you’re still screaming at Fido when he gets into the garbage your little angel is going to continue screaming bloody murder when she doesn’t get her way because she’s seen mama do it.
It’s the same way with food. Kids have an innate ability to know when a lecture is coming and intuitively and preemptively tune out.
However, if you can make a habit to grab some grapes or cut up jicama (my personal favorite) instead of reaching for the Lays on a bad day, you can be sure that little pairs of eyes will take note and follow suit later on.
Long Story Short: Display healthy eating yourself. The tiny humans are always watching.
#7 Don’t Freak Out Over Little Stuff
This isn’t really a tip for healthy eating rather than an overall piece of life advice. Nothing is possible 100% of the time. People are fallible, imperfect humans and sometimes fallible, imperfect humans need Dr. Pepper. (It’s a scientific fact.)
It’s awesome to want your kids (or yourself) to eat healthier, and the world would be a better place if more parents did.
However, if your kid has a horrible day at school and really wants an ice cream cone, you are not going to go to mom jail for giving it to them.
Yes, your kid should eat healthy foods most of the time. Yes, you should try to get them to eat more veggies and fewer oreos.
However, if you decide to have a cheat meal (or even a cheat day) every once in a while and get the kid a crazy large box of candy at the movie theater, I promise no roving band of Pinterest-perfect, health food warrior moms in “I heart granola” tee shirts are going to follow you around pointing and judging.
Kids are very resilient and very active. A chocolate chip cookie every once in a while won’t condemn them to a lifetime of obesity.
Long Story Short: Cheat meals (or even days) are perfectly acceptable, normal, and healthy. Just make sure they aren’t cheat weeks and you’re fine.
Overall Summary: Small, Sustainable Moves Trump Draconian Changes
To be completely honest, just like that grapefruit-only fad diet we all tried in high school, if you try to implement a radical change your kids will rebel against it with all their might and (even if you successfully force them into it) it probably won’t last very long.
When I was working my way through grad school as a personal trainer (in what now feels like a previous life) I used to tell my clients that the best changes are the ones you can see easily making for a whole year. If you’re worried about being able to stick to something, chances are it’s going to fall through.
However, if something doesn’t seem like too big of an imposition or sacrifice (like grocery shopping more often or making fruit more available) it’s likely to stand the test of time.
So there are my two cents of mom-vice (which is like dad-vice, but usually less pun-centric): make small, low-impact changes, take it easy on the mom guilt if your kid accidentally finds an M&M, and focus on the big picture.
Just the fact that you’re here on the webbernet researching how to make your kids eat healthier probably means you’re doing just fine, mama.
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