So many parents struggle with their kids around food. Their child has an aversion to several or many foods and the parent is at a loss as to how to encourage the child to stretch their taste buds and try more food. These conversations can become a point of contention where both the parent and child end up upset and frustrated. It’s a futile cycle and parents are left feeling like there is no end in sight. Does any of this sound familiar? If so, I think I can help.
In my experience as a nanny, personal chef and Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, these are the tactics that my clients and I have found most useful in improving kids’ relationship with food and the food choices they make.
Involve kids in cooking and meal prep
Not only does this provide them with a very important life skill but it helps to create a feeling of ownership and personal investment in the food they eat. Children like to have a say and when we include them in a process it is much easier to gain their buy in and approval.
Kids also love the tactile aspects of cooking and meal prep. Roll up their sleeves and let them get their hands dirty. They might make a mess, but it is all part of the fun. Fun is encouraging. Creating a connection between the preparation of whole foods and fun is a major win in the war on picky eating.
There is also a long game element to this strategy. In ten years, the five-year-old picky eater you are faced with now will be fifteen and able to whip up the family dinner for you when you’ve had a super hectic day at work. It’s a healthy lifestyle hack that your future self with thank you for. You’re welcome.
Avoid referring to foods as “good” or “bad”
As a general rule, I discourage the vilification of any particular food. There are foods that may better support your health and wellness goals and there are others that help deeply satisfy food cravings. They are both good and serve a purpose in their own rights.
I believe this shift in mentality helps us all to have a healthier relationship with all food; the stuff that actually nourishes us and the food like substances that are fun to enjoy on occasion.
If I had to draw an analogy, it would be to the prohibition era. From 1920-1933, alcohol was an illegal substance in the United States. That didn’t keep people from buying or drinking alcohol. Instead, it drove them underground and alcohol consumption became entangled with organized crime. When things are labeled as a “never” or “bad,” they immediately become sexier and more desirable like a forbidden fruit.
While you and your kids won’t be confused for Al Capone, for enjoying a chocolate chip cookie or brownie, you also don’t want them to draw a connection between an occasional splurge/treat and the feeling that they’ve done something wrong or shameful that should be hidden. This is how you create a “sneaky eater.” Been there. Done that. It’s not cute.
Create connections between nutrients/key properties and health benefits
While I don’t believe in talking about foods as “good” or “bad,” I do think we can educate kids about what foods nourish their bodies, provide them with sustained energy, make them feel good, and support a happy mood.
What does this look like? Well, instead of telling a child that a cookie is a “bad” choice for a snack, try explaining that the sugar in the cookie will give them a burst of energy right now and will then make them feel tired pretty quickly afterward. They are also likely to end up wanting another cookie.
Then, provide an alternative snack option like a green apple with a nut butter (as long as they aren’t allergic to nuts) and explain this will give them more sustained energy because of the fat and protein in the nut butter. They won’t always make the choice that you want them to make but they will cultivate a relationship with food as fuel and that is pretty rad!
Explain the function of food
Food is intended to sustain life. Healthy eating consists of consuming nutrient dense whole foods that are minimally processed. Does a Snickers bar sustain life? Only if you are shipwrecked on an island with no other source of calories. Does a steak and broccoli sustain life? Darn, skippy. This can easily be turned into a game that you play with kids. Is this food life sustaining or “nah?”
Model a healthy relationship with food and ask kids for their input
Kids are ALWAYS watching and listening to everything that the big kids (yes, that’s us) say and do. That means that you need to prioritize cooking, meal prep and sensible eating habits in your household. Kids will get the importance of these behaviors simply by observing the effort and commitment that you put forth.
Please avoid calling any food “good” or “bad” or saying things like:
- “I really shouldn’t have eaten that.”
- “That is going straight to my hips.”
- “I’ll need to work out extra hard at the gym.”
Engage your kids in conversations about your plans for the day and allow them the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions on which foods would be the best fit.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below on these tactics as well as any others that have worked in your family.
With love and gratitude,