While it’s so important to nurture a love of plant foods in our children, it’s also important not to make eating a stressful event. When kids associate “food” with “anxiety”, bad things happen. I.E. eating disorders like emotional overeating.
But we do want to encourage our children to make healthy food choices. How can we do this?
Here’s a few suggestions, and I welcome more:
1. Help them to become comfortable with produce
Many of my patients who don’t eat enough lot of fruits and vegetables tell me they’re intimidated by the produce aisle, that they wouldn’t know what was what, or how to prepare it. They never developed any kind of familiarity with these foods.
So next time you’re at the supermarket with the kids, dawdle among the plant foods, and let them pick some out. Or, swing by a farmer’s market and gawk at the gorgeous farmstands. Maybe grow a little “teaching” garden in your own backyard.
Wherever the fruits and veggies come from, let the kids wash them and chop some up, either to help you, or to create their own recipe. Use plastic knives, either disposable, or specifically for kids, if you like.
Then, and this is key: Don’t make them eat it.
The point is to become familiar with the fruit and adventurous with the veggies. If we push and prod them to take a step they may not be ready for, it will take the fun out of the experience, and they’ll likely lose interest. Or worse, refuse to have anything to do with plant foods and food prep. Yes, there may be some uneaten groceries, but in my mind, it’s not wasted. It’s part of a much larger lesson plan.
Here, Babyboy is actually using a real knife to make a fruit salad, which he did eat. He has often chopped up veggies that he had no intention of actually ingesting, and that’s okay too:
2. Model the behavior you want them to have
This is true for just about everything. Ample evidence supports “walk the walk”. Want your kids to use their words to work through disagreement? Don’t want them to be insulting, berating, or physical? Then that’s what we parents need to model.
Same with a healthy lifestyle. Here’s a very typical weeknight dinner in our house– for my husband and I, not the kids:
Did we offer some to the kids?
Did we talk it up? I.E. Ooooh look at these bright and colorful veggies, guys! Mommy and Daddy are so lucky to eat this delicious healthy food! Lots of vitamins!
Did the kids try even one bite? And did we even attempt to force them?
No. No no no. They ate what they usually eat: Pirate Booty dipped in yogurt (Babygirl) and scrambled eggs with melted cheese and toast (Babyboy).
And that’s totally okay. Just seeing their parents prepare and enjoy a (gorgeous) meal like this is a powerfully positive influence. They see what we eat and associate that with “normal”. We know that when they’re adults, they’ll gravitate towards options like this.
2. Put healthy options right out there
This past weekend, Babygirl had a playdate. After they ran around in the yard, I offered to cut up from fruit as a snack. Naaah, they said. Can we make s’mores?
So I made both s’mores and fruit (note: microwave s’mores are pretty easy) and set it all out.
Lo and behold, the fruit was eaten.
Sometimes, just setting out a tempting assortment of healthy foods will encourage tasting, then eating. And if they didn’t eat it? It would have ended up as dessert later in the evening, and in the lunchboxes for the next day.
Fostering familiarity with produce, modeling healthy choices, and offering fruits and veggies regularly: These are just a few easy tips for encouraging kids to make healthy food choices for their whole lives. I welcome any other ideas that readers have!