As parents, I think we can all agree that when it comes to encouraging kids to make healthy choices, well, it's not the easiest of tasks. So what's a parent to do? It begins by creating healthy choices without being too obvious about it. After all, for many kids if you say the word healthy, they'll turn up their nose in disgust! It isn't uncommon for kids to push aside healthy options for the "fun" food, which is heavily promoted through television.
I have a number of parents telling me, "If I don't buy the food they like, they won't eat anything!" The reality is if they get hungry enough, trust me, they will eat. You've never heard of a child starving to death because his mother refused to feed him junk food, have you?
Children WILL choose to eat healthy food. It's just a process that takes time and creativity. There are plenty of good foods that your kids can learn to enjoy. It's simply a matter of making gradual changes and allowing their palate to adjust to the changes. In other words, their palate is used to the high sodium and fat levels in food, therefore they will need to adjust to foods that don't contain so much salt and fat. This process takes a while.
A couple of changes that I made in the beginning for my kids was something as basic as making a smoothie with almond milk and fruit versus a milkshake. I served baked tortilla chips and salsa instead of french fries and ketchup. And for a snack, they ate sliced apple with almond butter instead of boxed snacks high in sugar, fat and calories. Eventually, they get used to it, trust me!
Keep in mind that the changes you make cannot be dramatic. In order for changes to stick, it must be a slow and steady process. In other words, don't clean out all your cabinets and refrigerator in order to eliminate all of the junk food, your kids will flip out, not to mention fight you every step of the way. To change nutrition habits, it needs to be a "work in progress" but once you're there, your children will be eating and feeling better, and so will you!
Below are suggestions to encourage your child to make healthier selections now AND later.
Put your kids in charge of packing their own lunch.
The rule in my house is when you entered 5th grade, or a responsible age, you are responsible for making your own lunch. Waiting until they were in 5th grade worked because the anticipation of "being in charge" of their own lunch made them really want to do it. It was a win-win: they felt grown-up and there is a feeling of vindication; one last duty is passed on!
Allow your kids to make a list of what they wanted for their lunches. The first time you did this, there maybe only one food group listed, sweets, so take the time to explain that they are allowed to choose one "sweet," as part of their lunch. Besides that, they had to choose their fruit or snack of choice, and the type of sandwich they wanted. Letting your child assist in the grocery list is also a win-win situation because it teaches them organization and keeps them involved with taking care of their body.
Pay attention to how much your child eats and when they are overeating. A simple half of a sandwich (you'd be surprised how many kids throw out most of their sandwich) or a tortilla roll-up, or some whole wheat crackers along with a fruit and healthy snack will most often satisfy them. They will let you know if the lunch didn't provide enough nourishment or fuel for the afternoon. I try teach my kids to avoid eating to the point of being "full" as that sets the stage to overeat at every meal. I just suggest that when they're not hungry anymore it's time to stop. This is a valuable lesson for children as well as adults!
Teach your kids what constitutes a healthy lunch, if they don't learn now; it's unlikely they'll worry about it later. Their lunch should include a healthy dose of live food, minerals and nutrients. The bulk of the meal should be natural and colorful, not the junk with added colors, dyes, preservatives and additives. You want to make sure your child knows that reading the food label is essential and to steer away from food that contain high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils.
Help your child make good choices by teaching them that healthy foods keep their body strong and fast. Kids will respond better to making food choices based on how they'll feel versus "it's bad for you." The minute you start referring to their food as healthy, to them it becomes unappealing. When society changes it's mindset about what is truly food for the body, then eating to live will become so appealing to everyone.
Take part in planning and preparing family meals.
I know dinner-time can be hectic enough without throwing kids into the role of chef. But here's the deal, the more your kids can participate in family meals, the better choices they will be able to make now and in the future. Healthy eating is a family project and everyone should get involved. I believe that it's as important to focus on healthy living and its excellence, as it is academic excellence and what better way to learn than as a family. Much can be learned at home and food/nutrition should be a priority on the list.
Understand the value in being active every day.
Because kids' lives have become so structured, it seems their only form of activity comes from organized sports. The problem is once they are no longer in sports, then what? What foundation has been laid to keep kids active beyond their structured sports lives? For many families, kids tend to spend too much time in front of the television or the computer. Unfortunately, this generation of kids no longer goes outside to play because of safety reasons or lack of motivation. This leaves our kids at risk of obesity and the illnesses that accompany it.
The 80/20 rule
When it comes to creating a healthy environment for your family, begin with teaching the value of balance and moderation for both exercise and sound nutrition. If kids can learn at a young age that healthy living doesn't mean you can never have dessert or miss a day of exercise, they will be ahead of the game. I think that as adults, we see diets as an all-or-nothing proposition. In other words, rather than using a healthy diet plan to "adjust" your nutrition, we use a diet as a strict list of "do's and don’t's" and end up walking away from it completely because there was no middle ground.