How Can I Improve My Child's Eating Habits?
Eleven Ways to Raise the Bar
by Mia Cronan
As a mother of five small children, my eyes have really been opened to what we're putting in our bodies on a daily basis. Without even thinking about it, millions of Americans everyday are loading up their systems with sugar and other refined foods that go through so much processing that, by the time they hit our mouths, they're barely recognizable as having started out as anything consumable.
Have you ever noticed packaged products such as cheese that is labeled as a "food product"? I donít know about you, but that scares me. And as addictive as sugar can be, we're doing our kids no favors by teaching them to fill up on it at an early age, starting with sweet cereals in the morning.
In my prior life working in hotel management, I was one of those who grabbed whatever was convenient, regardless of how it contributed to the balance of nutrition that I needed for serious fuel. Reading a nutrition label was out of the question. Who has time for that? A food label is something the government required of food producers, and little more than that. After five pregnancies, weight gain, losing my marbles while trying to lose the weight again, and aging ten years during the course of having babies, I have learned a lot about what we're eating and how it affects energy levels, clarity of mind, and sleeping habits.
This spring, our youngest daughter was six months old, and I got tired of looking in the mirror and seeing the stubborn baby weight that wasn't moving on so easily this time around. Being close to 40, I know my metabolism isn't what it once was, so I also know I have to work harder at losing weight now. Armed with having accepted that, I was ready to jump in and do something about it. My doctor recommended the South Beach Diet, but I'm not disciplined enough to follow a plan, so I adopted my own modified version. I have cut out refined sugar, refined flour, potatoes, rice, and other forms of starch. I have increased my protein intake, and I eat more veggies and fruits. Since that time, I have lost 23 pounds, am four pounds from my goal weight, and have never felt better. I sleep better, I have more energy, I can think more clearly, and my muscles have more tone and definition than when I was in college.
As soon as I started paying more attention to food labels and magazine articles about healthy eating for myself, I knew I had to do a better job of monitoring my children's eating habits, too. After all, if we say we want what's best for our children, why would we give them garbage to eat? So how do we get our kids to eat better? Here are ten things to try:
1. Walk the talk. Eat healthier, and talk about it to them. Explain how food is like gasoline for a car; we need fuel to make our bodies run. If we put garbage in our tanks, the car won't start! If your kids see you snacking on chips and cookies, they'll be mighty confused when you say no to them to the same things. Set the example.
2. When the kids ask for a drink, give them water. Aside from the fact that it's much cheaper, it's much healthier than pop and even juice. (I have trouble typing the words "healthy" and "pop" in the same sentence.) Have you ever looked at the sugar content on the food label of a bottle of juice? Think of a pond that is nearly dried up from a lack of rain. The yuck you see at the bottom comprises a much higher percentage of the whole pond than if the pond was full of water. The same goes for our bodies. Staying adequately hydrated keeps our systems clean and fresh. If you anticipate a lot of resistance on this from your children, give them time and don't lose sight of the goal. The kids will get used to drinking more water and, most likely, eventually crave it! Another idea is keeping a pitcher of green tea on hand. Green tea is loaded with antioxidants! Bear in mind, it does contain caffeine.
3. Don't buy the junk. You can't eat what isn't there, and the same goes for the children. Instead, have things like bananas, apples, carrot sticks, yogurt, cheese, and nuts in the kitchen. Encourage a small salad for a snack, or even a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread and cut with a cookie cutter for some added fun! Don't even purchase things that are "ready to eat," like granola bars, fruit snacks, or packaged lunch meats. If lunch meats are a staple in your home, go straight to the deli and get it fresh. Kids love to be able to make choices; it helps them establish their independence. Be sure to provide several healthy alternatives so they can choose between them and not feel backed into a corner. Also, consider the fact that using food as a reward or a punishment can easily cause eating disorders, as adults will go back to the comforts they knew as children.
4. Have a healthy snack prepared and waiting for them. My kids get off the bus tripping all over themselves to get a snack. They are hungry after a day at school! And of course, if allowed, they would grab the quickest and most convenient item, which would no doubt be something prepackaged, loaded with sugar and sodium, and who knows what else. So think ahead, and be ready with something yummy and nutritious, to make sure they're refueling in the right way!
5. Take them to the grocery store and have them read food labels to you. You will be amazed at how much they pick up and will discuss with you later. Now is the time to get them in the habit. Recently, I offered my three-year-old son a banana, and he declined, claiming it has "too many carbs." It did not in fact have too many carbs for a growing three-year-old, but he knows the verbiage from hearing it around the house and at the grocery store!
6. Lunch at school counts, too. I am consistently shocked at how much food gets tossed and goes to waste at my daughters' schools, because teachers and aides can't possibly monitor every child eating every morsel. Take back control, and pack your child's lunch. This way, you can pack things you know your child will eat and also include healthy foods that you prepared yourself. If your child really likes chips, go for the baked chips. Instead of store-bought cookies, try trail mixes or even home baked oatmeal cookies, which have far fewer preservatives and chemicals. Crunchy veggies with dip and air-popped popcorn make great munchies, too. Instead of pre-packaged fruit in a sugary syrup, put a piece of fresh fruit or a box of raisins in the lunchbox. If your child has a well-insulated lunchbox, you can even include dinner leftovers that are nutritious.
7. Avoid vending machines. This is key as kids get older and are exposed to more of this method of finding a quick snack. Talk to your kids about what is actually in a vending machine. For example, we really don't know how long that pack of crackers with the spreadable cheese has been in there. How many preservatives does it take to keep it appearing fresh in the machine? Have you ever bought a ham sandwich from a machine? It may have been great the day someone slid it in there, but how about the day it drops into the "out" box. And how about the cost of it? Encourage them to think ahead and add a little something extra in their lunch for the purpose of snacking.
8. Take a stand against snack time at extra-curricular activities. It seems that every event, sport, or organization in which our kids participate, it's some parent's job to "bring a snack." This grates on my nerves, as anyone who knows me can validate. What is the purpose here? I've heard that it provides something for the kids whose activities fall around dinner time but don't have time to eat. Well, is it not the parents' job to feed the child, presumably something nutritious, either before or after the event? In my estimation, the snack thing takes up time, it creates an unnecessary nuisance and mess, it can get costly, it adds to a busy parent's burden, but most importantly, it's unhealthy! Most snacks brought to these functions are loaded with all the wrong things. Judging by the child obesity problem that we have in this country, I would say that this practice of bringing a snack to every function does not help the situation and should be reassessed.
9. Turn off the TV. Watching TV can lead to mindless snacking on whatever can be grabbed and shoved without looking. This lack of physical activity alone depletes the amount of aerobic activity a child gets and contributes to the obesity epidemic referenced above. Push the kids outside each day for some fresh air and exercise. They'll be ready for a healthy meal when you call them in for dinner!
10. Be careful of "energy" drinks and foods. Again, read those labels. Most likely, you'll find sugar carbohydrates make up the energy. First comes the sugar high, then the sugar crash. And the carbs that come from starch quickly convert to sugar, causing the same reaction. Encourage the protein intake, a more sustained source of energy.
11. Get sneaky. Most families have at least one child who is stubborn, or at least picky, about eating. I have five of them. This doesn't actually teach your child how to eat right, but as a last resort sneaking in nutrition where you can helps their growing bodies in the long run. Dawn, of BabyUniversity.com , says she puts Carnation Instant Breakfast into her son's morning milk because she can't get him to eat breakfast. She also puts flax seed oil in for his eczema. Another mom I know puts grated carrots in her meatloaf. She's a close enough friend that I can tell her how atrocious that sounds to me, but she says it works for her. On that note, merely encouraging family dinner time has health benefits, as parents can have family time and monitor what kids are eating at the same time.
Cheri, of FabulousFoods.com says, "Get them involved in cooking, not only do they learn a valuable skill, they are more apt to eat it if they helped make it themselves. From early on, introduce as many different foods as possible. I think itís in the attitude. I have friends and acquaintances who are serious foodies and gourmets and their kids eat nearly everything, because thatís what the parents do, and thatís what they have always been taught."
The bottom line is, grab a hold of the steering wheel on this one, and your kids will learn and benefit from it. Our culture pushes junk food and touts it as convenient, but it also causes cancer, heart problems, digestion issues, skin problems, weight problems, diabetes, and a myriad of other unhealthy situations. For more information on this topic, visit these helpful links:
Feeding Baby (book review)
But it's not just for babies, itís really for all kids and also has meals the whole family can eat!