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Healthy Mom, Healthy Kids”¦and How to Help Picky Eaters

Do as I say, not as I do. You’ve probably heard of that kind of parenting style, and maybe you’ve even used implemented it yourself a time or two with your own finicky eaters. But the truth is, kids are incredibly aware. And regardless of what you tell them, they learn a lot from watching what you do. That includes everything from how you dress, talk, and treat other people, as well as what you eat.

So if you want your kids to learn to eat healthy, guess what? It’s up to you to make that happen. And that’s going to be pretty hard to do if they see you eating a lot of junk and poo-pooing “healthier” stuff. If you indulge from time to time, no biggie. But if your kids think a food-like meal that comes with a toy (or covered in pepperoni and cheese and sliced, or battered and dipped in ketchup) is the norm, it’s a good indicator that your diet needs a little help.

Develop Healthy Habits at Home

Currently, an estimated one-third of all children and teens are overweight or obese. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers wanted to find out if fast food was the leading cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. In the three-year study, they followed nearly 4,500 children and tracked their eating habits.

They found that fast food wasn’t the primary problem. Instead, they discovered overweight and obese children not only ate more fast food, they also ate more processed foods high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium. They also found that they ate fewer fruits and vegetables than normal-weight kids.

Pizza and macaroni and cheese dinners doesn’t suddenly become “not that bad” because it’s organic. If you’re somehow putting those in any other category than processed foods high in calories, fat and sodium – it’s time to talk about that river in Egypt. (And yes, the same goes for gluten-free versions of these foods) Not that they’re the worst options out there- but they’re certainly not ideal fuel. Think about how you feel when you don’t eat well”¦tired, grumpy, bloated (at least I do). If you don’t think this somehow doesn’t also apply to your kid – think again. It can take some time to shift these habits, but that’s ok. Commit to it and stay consistent. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and all that jazz.

Did you know?

Research suggests kids need to try something 8-10 times after initially rejecting it. Try the “one bite rule” (must eat at least one bite of everything on the plate) instead of the “clean the whole plate” policy to up your chances that in a few weeks, the spinach or broccoli (or hey, even kale!) won’t seem so foreign. Plus relaxing the rules a bit will keep the whole food experience from being stressful (for all parties involved) and probably encourage better communication along the way.

Another way to keep things fun at mealtime – change the plate. Not just what’s on it, but how it’s arranged. We old folks like it when everything’s mushed up. Kids, not so much. Try distinct piles of different foods on the plate, make sure to get a variety of colors, or even try using cookie cutters or arranging foods into a heart or smiley face. Frozen veggies or fruits can be a fun way to change things up, too. Frozen peas are a winner!

“If at first you don’t succeed…”

Consistency will be a huge make-or-breaker in the whole project. “Treat eating” is ok once in a while, but remember it’s no longer a treat when you eat it every single night. If you only feed your kid pizza, chicken nuggets and salty, cheesy crackers”¦ of course something fresh and green (or red, or orange, or purple, or”¦) looks weird at first. But remember that kids need to try new foods 8-10 times. Just keep at it. Or try new delivery methods – like blending it into a smoothie, or roasting a new veggie or blending it into a soup. Kids can be very sensitive to texture.

I know it’s a scary thought when you’re tasked with teaching your kids to develop healthy eating habits that will literally shape the rest of their life. Fortunately, there are ways to help you and your kids enjoy healthy food.

Be a Good Example

Instead of the using the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do routine to get your kids to eat healthy, make it a point to personally eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other healthy foods. If your kids aren’t on board yet, talk about what you’re eating and why you like it at meal time. Before long, your kids will be willing to giving it a try, and you’ll be healthier for setting the example.

Think about how you broach the topic of new foods with them. If you say “you have to eat this broccoli!” it’s possible you’re setting them up to say “Ew, yuck. NO!” How about instead saying “Here’s some super yummy roasted broccoli I made.” Don’t assume they won’t like it. You know what they say about assuming”¦

A rose by any other name”¦ (might not actually smell as sweet)

In a similar vein of setting yourself up for success with how you frame food choices”¦ an interesting study looked at what happened when cafeterias changed the names of different veggie dishes. Names like “X-Ray vision carrots,” “Power Punch Broccoli” “Tiny Tasty Tree Tops” and “Silly Dilly Green Beans” translated to significantly more kids choosing those foods!

“Researchers looked at food sales over two months in two neighboring NYC suburban schools. For the first month, both schools offered unnamed food items, while on the second month carrots, broccoli and green beans were given the more attractive names, only in one of the schools (the treatment school.) Of the 1,552 students involved 47.8% attended the treatment school. The results were outstanding: vegetable purchases went up by 99% in the treatment school, while in the other school vegetable sales declined by 16%!” (You can read more about that study here)

Provide Healthy Options

Improving your own diet by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods is a good way to get more nutrients your body needs for best health. But that’s not going to convince your kids to start munching spinach and tomatoes.

Kids have different value systems than we old fogies (I mean – adults). Healthy to a kid doesn’t rank so high on the priority scale. Most of ’em think they’re near invincible but can feel limited by their size and ability. Instead of telling them to eat salad because it’s healthy – how about saying “it helps you grow tall and strong” or “it helps you kick the soccer ball harder.”

Provide your kids with healthy options and offer a variety of foods at meal time. Then give them some control over what they’re eating. Homemade pizza (try a paleo crust with almond meal, eggs and olive oil!), tacos, and rice bowls are great for this approach. Give your kids options to add their own toppings like olives, avocado, tomatoes, pineapple, green peppers, etc.

Better yet, take them with you to the store or farmer’s market beforehand and let them choose something that looks good to them. Older kids can even help in the prep work. Washing snap peas or setting the table can help set the scene for a more positive experience, too.

Use Covert Tactics

If you’ve already tried more traditional methods to get your kids to eat healthy, you may need to resort to covert tactics for a while.

  • Add berries, zucchini (if you skin it first they probably won’t know it’s there. Cucumber is a nice addition too!) to a smoothie.
  • Chop up broccoli into bits and cover it in a quesadilla. Use applesauce to replace half of the oil in recipes.
  • Add fat and/or salt. Yes, this is a serious suggestion. (just remember to scale it back later) Nutritional yeast, miso or tamari also help a lot.
  • Make muffins with bananas or shredded zucchini.
  • Load up your spaghetti sauce with a blended mix of finely chopped onion, grated carrots and zucchini. Some folks even use unflavored PaleoGreens in their tomato sauces! (We recommend adding it in later in the cooking process when it’s not going to be cooked too long or at too high of a heat)
  • You can even bake your own chips made from kale leaves or thinly sliced carrots and turnips.

What are your best tips to getting your kids to eat healthier? Share in the comments below!