“My kids are in public school, sports, and have a social life. It’s hard to get them to choose healthy foods.”
As the school year starts, and moms are decompressing from a busy summer, I’m getting emails like this. We all know that the habits we set our children up with are likely to influence their entire lives, and it’s a lot of responsibility. And our children aren’t raised in a vacuum, we are around lots of different food ideas on any given day. It’s hard to be different.
Everything about food and our current culture is hard right now. And since children’s health problems are skyrocketing, we no longer can sit in denial.
Some things we all struggle with:
- Wanting to make healthy habits so our children instinctively choose healthy foods.
- Dealing with food allergies- not only our own, and our children’s, but also the other kids at school (nut free schools, etc).
- Preparing meals on those days when everything seems to go wrong, there is no food in the house, and the main food preparer is stressed out.
- Kids that get in the habit of snacking, picking at meals, and then snacking again because they didn’t fill up at meal time.
- Other people giving our children treats and being offended when we don’t allow them to consume them.
- Being afraid of enabling bad eating habits in our children.
- Being afraid of causing eating disorders in our children.
- Being afraid that we are harming our children’s emotions because we say ‘no’ so often to food (or ‘food-like products’)
- Being afraid that we are going to harm our children’s emotions because we changed how the family ate.
- How do we convince our children that their carrot sticks for school snack is acceptable when the child sitting next to them eats vanilla pudding every day?
The transition from toddlerhood, where the parents control nearly all the food, to school where they see their peers often eat food daily that is brightly colored, tastes sweet, and seems much more interesting can be hard. Even doubly so if your family is trying to change the way you eat while your child still sees their friends having their favorite junk foods, which now are not allowed in your home.
Some easy changes that have helped families of school-aged children:
- Make any bigger changes over school breaks (GAPS, gluten free, eliminating refined sugar, etc).
- Change their school lunches last- if you can start the kids with a healthy breakfast and finish the day with a healthy dinner, leaving the lunch that they eat at school the same for a while isn’t the end of the world.
- Purchase cookbooks and let your kids look through them. If your children can find a recipe, read, and follow it, they are already ahead of many young adults. Nourishing Traditions Kids Cookbook is great.
- Host play dates at your home, or meet at the park.
- Eliminate or cut down on snacking and serve your meals in courses- least favored food first. I talk about this in this free webinar on picky eating here.
- Go to bed earlier. Tired people, including children, are more likely to crave sugar and junk food.
- Keep your attitude matter of fact. “I learned that ____ is a better way to eat so that we can learn better and have more energy and better mood. Right now we are going to start with _____ since we have time and the ability. Let’s see how it goes, the first week might be weird while we’re adjusting, but soon we will feel so much better because this kind of food makes us feel good.
- Open discussion, but not debate. You are the parent, you have the life experience and the ability to make reasonable healthy choices for your children.
Communication with children (well, with anyone actually!) about food choices can be tricky. We don’t want to make anyone feel bad about their food choices, and we don’t want to pretend that we have all the answers. But at the same time we need to present the facts to our children in an age appropriate way so that they understand the why behind what we do.
Some things that I’ve found helpful in communicating about food with kids:
- Focus on what they like. Do they want to compete in races or in team sports? Explain how protein, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals provide the nutrients they need to repair muscle, grow, and get stronger and faster. Do they have a specific career they’d like to do? Show them how being healthy and having energy will help them achieve this goal.
- Acknowledge that other people eat differently. It’s true. Some people do eat mostly junk food and are completely fine. For most of the families reading this, your family is not ‘fine’, and you need higher quality nutrition than others. Many others also are not ‘fine’ and they don’t change how they eat and suffer because of it. It is what it is, just remind your children that you can only make changes in your family, and other people have different things going on. I avoid making absolute statements- I don’t want my child bringing me an article about an Olympic athlete that lives on fast food and doughnuts, or the neighbor down the street that is 88 and has lived on a pack of cigarettes, whiskey, and white bread for most of their life. So I avoid saying ‘people who eat like this are sick and can’t run fast’ or anything like that.
- Talk about dietary change just like you would any major decision in the family. You took your child’s need into account when you chose to work/stay at home, homeschool/public school/private school, what zip code to live in, what house to buy, and what car to drive- but it’s unlikely that you let him make those decisions on his own, even if they did directly affect him. The same is with food, it’s okay for the family to change something to better the family unit- whether it’s to move across town, or change what groceries are purchased, if you are doing it with the intention to help your family, you’re doing great!
Some things that I’ve found helpful in communicating about food with others:
- Acknowledge that I’m different. I’m up front about this when I’m interviewing babysitters especially. If someone gets their feathers ruffled when I say that I don’t let my kids eat between meals, or that I’d like them to ask before feeding my kids, they aren’t someone that we’re going to work with. In the same way, if I go around pretending that everyone understands my food choices when I haven’t bothered to explain them, I’m going to be disappointed often.
- Give them canned responses to tell your children. I don’t mind being the bad guy- so I tell teachers to tell my children that mom doesn’t want you to eat that, you can have this instead.
- Don’t judge. Everyone eats what they eat for a hundred different reasons. When we come to a conversation without judgement of what other people do, they will be more accepting of us.
- I am not responsible for them reacting poorly to this, and I cannot control how they react.
Food in Our Culture
It’s okay to have our children see us be a little bit angry. For a long time I thought I had to be very calm and neutral all the time, but I think I went overboard. It’s okay for your children to see that what they eat is IMPORTANT, and what society, the advertisements, and even well-meaning people encourage will actually harm them.
I’m certainly not suggesting that we get in the habit of ranting and raving, but when my son was given candy (despite me sending 2 snacks and a lunch) every day for the first week of summer camp, I was mad and I let him see it. Just like I would have been mad if they had transported him in a vehicle without a seat belt. It’s dangerous to his health, and I think it is okay to let our emotions about this topic show.
I ended up telling him that he could only eat what I packed, and to get out his own water bottle and snack when the other kids got whatever they were serving for snack, and thankfully that worked well.
Treats & Good Food/Bad Food
We don’t want our children to eat the standard american diet of sugar, refined carbohydrates, food additives, and processed food, we also don’t want them to fear having treats, or feel like they need to hide them from you. Special occasions call for special foods, whether it’s a feast on Thanksgiving, a birthday cake on birthdays, or an ice cream social at the end of the summer for summer camp.
Favorite foods are a treat when we get them, but we need to be careful not to fall in the trap of thinking that we only need to eat our ‘favorite foods’ and never consume anything else.
I want my children to feel free to enjoy treats occasionally. What occasionally means will change for every family, and even at different time periods for the same family. For ours, that means we bake something fun or special on Saturdays (like the cupcake pictured above!). We make sure the birthday child gets their favorite foods on their birthday, but the rest of the year we eat a varied diet, and children are expected to eat what is served even if it isn’t their favorite.
Most meals fruit is served after the protein and vegetable is eaten, and that is the ‘treat’- so in some ways we do have treats every day. Right now we never consume food dye, and we very very rarely consume corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, or processed soy- those are all things I don’t really consider ‘food’, and just like we try to avoid breathing heavily polluted air, we try to avoid consuming those items.
Some treats that we make and enjoy:
Some things that help me to stay on track with home-cooked meals:
- Freezer Cooking
- Sending packed lunches to school and summer camp
- Focusing on outside activities like swimming, hiking, and visiting the park
- Using the slow cooker!