Raising Kids to Be Healthy Eaters

Let’s talk about picky eaters. Are kids naturally picky eaters, or do we as their parents and as a society,  “allow” them to be picky eaters? I like to think that the latter is true, except maybe in a few rare situations. When we give birth to our babies, we have great intentions of nurturing their little bodies with super nutritious breast milk. As they get older, we feed them homemade organic baby food and we feel proud because of the nourishment we are giving them. At some point between baby and toddler, a lot of parents give up. They begin to  see happy meals as a rite of passage,and when their child says that he “doesn’t like vegetables”, they stop trying and declare their child as a “picky eater”. This is a vicious cycle that we fall prey to in America. We are one of the only countries that offers a kid’s menu at restaurants.  Its nonsense if you think about it. Why can't kids just eat off of the adult menu?  I get asked a lot of questions from friends about how to keep your kids from becoming picky eaters. My plain and simple answer is to not give them “kid food”. When I say “kid food”, I am referring to things such as processed macaroni and cheese, processed hot dogs, chicken tenders, french fries, refined pasta, grilled cheese on white bread, and the list goes on.  For those of you who have given your kids these items, I don’t want you to feel that I am scolding you or looking down on you,  I am simply saying to move away from the mentality that your child needs “kid food”.  Next time you go to a restaurant, how about letting your child use the kid’s menu just for coloring. Take a long hard look at that kid’s menu, chances are the nutritious options are very few and far between. Most restaurants will offer smaller adult portions or a la carte items for children if you ask.  So what should you do if your child truly doesn’t like a food? Just like adults, children are allowed to have aversions to foods. I hate peas! If they are in a dish, I must pick out each and every one!  If your child doesn’t like carrots, then don’t make him eat carrots. However, if he says he doesn’t like any vegetables, that is a problem that must be solved. It is important to remember that children have much stronger taste buds than adults. They can taste a bitterness in broccoli that we don’t even know is there. I am a huge advocate of making food fun for kids. At our house we try to make it fun by eating trees with snow (broccoli or cauliflower and homemade ranch), princess food (salmon, because its pink), and lion food (apples). Not really sure where that one came from....

I take a lot of pride in the way that my daughter eats. I don’t attribute her healthy habits to “luck”, I attribute it to the strong discipline of my husband and I in our decision to teach healthy eating habits from day one. James and I made a mutual decision after having Sophia, that healthy eating will be a huge priority in our family with major limitations of restaurants, fast food, and processed foods. Sophia has only had fast food once in her life due to an act of desperation when we were out running errands. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know that white bread exists because I only buy whole grain. She would rather eat grilled chicken dipped in homemade ranch than have store bought chicken nuggets.  When given the choice between french fries and roasted sweet potatoes, she chooses sweet potatoes. These are just a few examples of how her taste buds are adapted to eating real foods. I state these things not to brag or boast, I simply want to illustrate that it is possible to raise a healthy eater. Although Sophia is a super healthy eater, we definitely have our battles like any other family. A huge frustration of mine is that Sophia is very picky in what fruit she will eat. She loves berries whether they be black berries, strawberries, blueberries,  or raspberries. The negative aspect of this is that I insist on buying organic berries, and this gets super expensive. We are trying to teach her to like a wider variety of fruits (that won’t hurt our budget) by offering dipping sauces and fun fruit kabobs. We also have difficulties with her grazing all day and not wanting to sit at the dinner table. She enjoys eating small servings throughout the day and never wants to eat when it's a designated “meal” time. I’ll touch more on this in #6.  Using the skills I have learned in several courses regarding food and behavior, as well as my personal experiences, I have compiled a list below with tips on how to raise your kids to be healthy eaters. We adhere to these rules in our house and it works! I hope you all find it helpful no matter what age your kiddos are.

7 Tips to Raise Healthy Eaters

1. Start early if possible.
Breastfeeding and the introduction of solid foods are both great opportunities to teach your baby to be a healthy eater from day one.  Breast milk can have a very distinct taste depending on what the mother is consuming in her diet. If you eat garlic for example, your breast milk will have a little garlic flavor in it and your baby will become accustomed to the flavor. When you start solid foods, always choose vegetables before fruit. If you offer fruit first, your baby will be less inclined to want the less sweet vegetables. As your child develops into a toddler, resist the urge to give them “kid food” such as packaged macaroni and cheese, store bought chicken nuggets, hot dogs, etc. Try as much as possible to teach your little one to eat normal foods that the rest of the family is eating.

2. Teach your children why they should eat healthy food. Yes, you can teach an older child to eat healthy. If you have raised your kids on fast food and now you feel ready to make the switch, its not too late! I think it is important to tell your children why they are not allowed to have fast food or why it's not okay to have ice cream every night. Whether your child is 3 or 13, you can choose how to vocalize this to them. “We don’t eat McDonalds anymore because it is not healthy for our bodies”. “We eat broccoli because it has calcium in it to help us grow big”. "We need to eat a healthy lunch at school so that you can concentrate at soccer practice". With your older kids you could go so far as to talk to them about growth hormones, grass fed beef, pesticides, and even watch food documentaries such as Food Inc with them if they are interested. Kids don’t like to hear “because I said so” for an answer. If you are not allowing them to eat something, explain why and hopefully they will be less likely to ask for that food next time.

3. Don’t have food in your house that is off limits. This is a VERY important lesson. I have heard of several parents who don’t let their kids have sugar, fast food, packaged snacks etc, but the parents order pizza after the kids go to sleep or keep ice cream hidden far back in the freezer. I really don’t think this is a good idea. Kids are smart. If they find food in your house that they are not allowed to eat, they will question it.  My husband and I recently instilled a rule that ALL food in our house is food that Sophia is allowed to eat. (The only exceptions are alcohol and spicy things such as cayenne and jalepenos.) This is a controversial one I realize. Like I said, I know that a lot of you probably enjoy eating snacks after the kids are in bed. Just make sure that if you do indulge in  something once in a great while, it is gone by morning and not hidden in the house.

4.  Set a good example. This goes hand in hand with #3. If the kids have to eat broccoli with dinner, then so does dad. Just last night, we had Trader Joes frozen pizza for dinner- by the way, their pizzas are great! All organic ingredients. I put the pizza on the table and a big bowl of carrots with the rule that everyone has to have five carrots. Sophia saw James and I eating carrots, and without hesitation, she started munching away. If your kids see you eating healthy foods, they will be much more inclined to eat those same foods. This is also a great way to introduce new foods. I munch on raw bell peppers several times each week, and as a result, Sophia loves bell peppers.

5. Try try try to not make it a battle, You’re in charge. There are some days when I offer Sophia several options of fruits and veggies and she just says no. On those days, I leave it on the table and tell her that if she is hungry, she can go eat in the kitchen. Nine times out of ten, she is back in the kitchen a few minutes later eating what I offered her. I usually give Sophia two options during meals and snacks. “Do you want blueberries or apple slices, do you want chicken or peanut butter and jelly?” If they throw a fit, just be patient. Don’t allow yourself to raise your voice over vegetables. If your kids see how frustrated you become, it will make them less inclined to eat the food. Remember ultimately that you are in charge and you are not a short order cook! If you have more than one child, offer all of your kids the same few options, if they don’t like the options, they can go hungry. I promise, they won’t go hungry:)

6. Remember that kids will eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. I cannot tell you how many times Sophia will wake up in the morning and eat 2 pieces of toast and a bowl of oatmeal, then lunch rolls around and she won’t eat anything, she asks for chicken at 3 in the afternoon, and then when James and I are eating dinner, all she wants is a few spears of asparagus and some blackberries. This drives me crazy! I have to remind myself that kids are the perfect example of intuitive eaters. They will eat when they are hungry and they will stop when they are full. Just because you say its lunch time, does not mean that they will want to eat. A good friend once told me that kids are like flowers, they can survive on water and sunshine. This is sort of true. When it comes to a balanced diet with your kids, rather than focusing on each day, focus on the week as a whole. If they are not hungry when you want them to eat, try to relax. Like I stated above, they won’t go hungry:)

7. Let your kids help with preparation and cooking. My daughter is not even three and she already helps in the kitchen. I always make sure to give her a small job when I am making meals so that she feels like she is part of the process. Some of the easiest jobs for her include: mixing ingredients such as beans or rice, putting salt and pepper on veggies, and mashing avocados. If your kids are older, allow them to plan meals a few times each week. I have heard of moms who have success with having a color theme at each meal. For example: eating as many red things at dinner as possible such as pizza with marinara and red bell peppers, and strawberries for dessert. Get creative so that meal time becomes a fun and exciting event rather than a battlefield.

8. Don't use food as bribery/reward/punishment. This one seems to be very controversial. Some parents think bribing kids with ice cream is a great way to get them to eat their green beans. I personally think this is a huge problem. When you use food as a bribe every night at dinner, you are actually teaching your child that they shouldn't want the green beans. I hate when I hear parents say, "if you want dessert, you need to eat all your vegetables". Now those vegetables seem a lot less enticing because your child knows there is dessert involved. I admit I am guilty of this once in a while. I try my best to not put any foods on a pedestal and not use food as a reward. If we run errands and Sophia is very well behaved, I allow her a treat once in a while. Sometimes she chooses a lollipop and sometimes she chooses a small toy. The choice is hers to make.  During lunch at our house I usually give Sophia her meal and a small cookie at the same time. If she eats the cookie first, she knows it is gone and now she has to eat her protein and her fruit. I suggest not even mentioning dessert to your kids before dinner so that they don't realize it is an option. I also don't see a problem serving a very small portion of dessert with dinner. if your child eats their dessert first, they will most likely still be hungry. They will know that the dessert is gone, and they will have no choice but to eat the other items on their plate. Ultimately we need to be mindful to not use food as bribery or punishment. If we don't put dessert on a pedestal, then neither will our kids.Of course living in America, we are all guilty of using foods as bribery. It's how we were raised. I am simply saying to try to not allow this to be an everyday habit in your house.

I hope that these tips will be helpful for kids of all ages. If you have any specific issues or questions to be addressed, I am more than happy to answer them! Please leave comments below. I truly love to hear from my readers!

Molly Mendoza  – (July 14, 2012 at 8:27 AM)  

I love this post Raising Kids to Be Healthy Eaters. I have two kids under the age of 3 and as a former teacher, I tend to focus on ABCs, 123s, reading, etc. I've wanted to focus more on educating myself about organic foods, for my own health and so that I can teach my kids healthy eating habits. Your blog was perfect timing for me in my pursuit of that knowledge. Everything from Organic 101 to your recipes and tips for kids- it's all so easy for me to implement because you're showing us "What it looks like" to make organic eating part of a healthy lifestyle. Thank you for sharing what you have learned! I'm passing it along to those who mean the most to me. :)

Delia Salas  – (July 15, 2012 at 10:35 AM)  

Molly, thank you so much for your comment. It made my day! I would love it if you would pass along the blog to other moms. I am new to the blogging world and I am trying to increase my readers:)

Unknown  – (July 24, 2012 at 10:06 PM)  

Hi Delia!
I have to say, I LOVE following your blog. I'm not really a blog follower, but I frequent your blog, and go back to old stuff ALL the time. I love it!

One of the things I have often is the overnight oats. It is so easy and so yummy, I don't know what I did before knowing about it! I've been putting chia seeds in them, like you had suggested. What other things do you put Chia seeds in? I'm can be super adventurous when I know other people have also tried them.

Congrats and finishing summer school! You're so close to the end!!! YAY! Enjoy your break :-)

Delia Salas  – (July 27, 2012 at 3:21 PM)  

Hi! I am so glad that you enjoy the blog. I enjoy writing and sharing my thoughts on food so much! I put chia seeds in EVERYTHING! Smoothies, cookies, chili, banana bread, cereal, oatmeal, etc. The possibilities are endless because the seeds don't have much of a flavor. I suggest putting them in anything that has a dense texture/taste. Let me know if you come up with any other ideas. Keep reading. Thank you for your sweet words:)

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