How to raise children with healthy eating habits – the million dollar question. I have always been a largely healthy eater…although my own mother was not the greatest of cooks – and neither do you need to be to have a healthy diet – she brought us up on a simple diet packed with fresh fruit and vegetables, staple carbs and nutritious proteins, as was the norm with the Mediterranean diet that she had been accustomed to.
I may not have known or felt it at the time, but right now, I am eternally grateful for those incredible foundations of healthy eating habits she laid for me. They saw me through my childhood, and all the way through adulthood. In many ways, I am the living proof of the fact that giving your children a taste for healthy food pays off.
Enter the fussy eater
When I had my daughter, I just assumed that having largely that sort of diet in effect in our household would just mean that she wanted to eat it. But no, I had a seriously fussy eater on our hands who shunned many of the fantastically (or sometimes, not so fantastically!) delicious, healthy and nutritious options I tried to tempt her with.
What could be more frustrating to a parent who spends her day trying to fuel her family with the most healthy meal options possible? Not much.
However, it taught me, to be creative in inspiring her to be and eat healthy. And to march on with that notion, even at times when it seemed futile – and there have been many.
Why children need to eat healthily
Although simply having a culture of eating healthy in your house is a great start, with a lot of children, especially younger children, it is just not enough for them to make their leap. But if anyone needs to eat healthily – it’s children. Healthier foods help to stabilize their energy and improve brain function. It also leads to better emotional health – a vital backdrop to the incredible mental and physical developmental curve they are all on.
If you are trying to…or perhaps I should say…struggling to instil healthy eating habits in your family, I want to say hang on in there! You are doing a great thing.
It can be immensely frustrating when you have laboured away at producing healthy and nutritious home-cooked meals for an often less-than-pleased clientele. You may feel like you want to throw in the towel. Not bother next time.
Don’t do it! You are creating the building blocks of your children’s healthy eating habits. They may not know it, or be grateful for it now, but it will pay off in time.
The long term effect of healthy food choices
The choices and effort you are putting in will have a long term effect on the food choices and child’s future health. It’s a well-known fact that dietary habits are a lot harder to change later on in life, so if you can put in the effort now in helping to influence your child’s palate and preferences, there’s a big pat on the back waiting for you.
In my constant mission to help my own child eat as healthily within our own four walls, I have journeyed through a series of trial and errors endeavours. Here I share my learnings of six years in the hope that it will inspire you in your own mission to lay down the foundations for eating healthy in your household:
Sitting down to eat healthily together
This might seem like an obvious place to start, but many families in this time-poor day and age really struggle with this. So if there is only one meal you can do this for each day, make it breakfast, seeing as that will set up your children best for the day ahead. T
hey say eating together whets the appetite, and I’ve found the sight of everyone eating the same thing at the same time seems to encourage and comfort children. We love to mix things up and if the weather is good, make it a no-pressure affair by having a meal as a picnic inside or in colder months, having an impromptu picnic on the floor…
Making your home a no-junk zone
No matter what unhealthy foods they may have been given outside your own home, if it is not in your cupboards, they simply can’t eat it. There’s a reason why that old adage – “Out of sight, out of mind” exists.
Even if you strive to provide them most healthy and nutritious food on their plates at home, that work can fast become undone once outside your own four walls. If you can distinguish between what’s given to them to eat at granny and grandpas (endless chocolate biscuits!) and what’s available in your own home (nutritious meals and healthy snacks) then that is one battle you simply and entirely side step.
Get them involved in cooking with you
This for me has been one of the biggest winners. I’ve found that if your child is involved in preparing delicious and healthy home-cooked food with you, learning and familiarizing themselves about the ingredients and produce as they go, they are far more likely to want to eat it.
This isn’t just a hunch – with a recent study by the Children’s Food Trust demonstrating that the learning of cooking skills improved children’s recognition of healthier foods and their desire to eat them.
Go to the source with them
A big problem with children and food these days is that simply have no idea where it comes from or how it grows! Cheese from plants?! Tomatoes growing underground? It may sound ridiculous to us but that is what a recent study has shown children to believe. Gah!
One of the corner stones of healthy eating is to understand where produce comes from and so it’s become a family ritual to head out to the local Pick Your Own farm around once a month to do exactly that. Believe me, digging up carrots and picking our broccoli is actually a lot of fun to do with children, and a great learning experience for them too.
They are far more likely to want to eat it, if they’ve picked it, and we have overcome various food phobias (though not all) in this way.
Exercise helps create a path towards healthy eating
These two scenarios have a very different ending in our house. Scenario A: Going to the playground for the morning, running and jumping around, and burning off lots of energy. Scenario B: Spending the morning playing in a more sedentary fashion. Guess what happens at lunch time with both? I guess you know where this is going. Put a healthy meal on the table with A: a healthy meal is much more likely to get wolfed down with little resistance. Scenario B is much more likely to get a few eyebrows raised and poking.
If you have a young child, role-playing is a great way of teaching the virtues of eating healthily, and for developing a love of healthy food. You don’t need a play kitchen to do it (although that’s always nice). You can always give her a little of the grains you happen to be cooking in a pan with some water with a spoon for her to swish around, and talk about the food you are both preparing.
Take role-playing to the next level and get their favourite toys involved, let your child be the one in charge for dishing up nutritious food for her own beloved bears. I’ve found this is a great, no-pressure way for children to learn about the important of different foods, how they are prepared, why they are important and how they are eaten.
With the rapidly spreading childhood obesity epidemic that seems to be blighting much of the Western world, I believe the extra effort we need to put in to help mould or children to be healthy eaters is the very least we can do in our role as parents, to ensure that our children are given the best mental and physical fuel they need to be happy and healthy, both inwards and out. Happy, healthy, fuelled up kids raring to go on full cylinders..sounds like just the ticket wouldn’t you agree?
Do you try to instill healthy eating habits in your children? Or perhaps you struggle to get your kids to eat healthily? Please do share in a comment below.
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