There are plenty of strategies to help your kids embrace a balanced diet.
By Linda Melone | Edited by Amanda Mauceri
What can a parent do when one child craves sweets and the other aspires to be the next healthy-cooking “Food Network” star? Such was the situation at the Holzemer household. Six-year-old Hunter loved candy, which made it nearly impossible for his mom to get him to eat vegetables or make healthy nutritional choices. “The problem started because his preschool teachers rewarded the kids with candy,” says Liz Holzemer, a 43-year-old writer in Highland Ranch, Colorado.
Her 8-year-old daughter Hannah, on the other hand, ate anything and everything (including sushi and Mexican food). While her brother pushed away his vegetables, Hannah wanted to imitate the cooking stars she saw on TV. She asked her mom to let her help in the kitchen so she could practice techniques she’d seen on the “Food Network.” “She not only enjoyed cooking but was willing to try just about any food,” said Holzemer. “But I never wanted to force my kids to eat vegetables.”
Hunter started looking on as his mother and sister whipped up tasty treats. Soon, he wanted to be part of things, too. A breakthrough occurred the day he asked to help slice mushrooms. “I waited for him to express an interest first,” says Holzemer. “Now he even eats salmon.”
Dangers of Junk Food
It’s no secret that getting kids to eat healthily can be a challenge. It can be particularly challenging if they’ve become accustomed to junk food, according to Sara Stein, MD, an obesity physician at Kaiser Permanente and author of “Obese from the Heart: A Fat Psychiatrist Discloses” (Quantum Psych INK).
“From a brain biology standpoint, we know junk food raises the dopamine in the brain,” Stein says, referring to the chemical associated with the pleasure centers. “It alters metabolic signals, meaning you’re hungrier for up to three days longer after a single serving of junk food. Plus, the food you eat may make you full, but you’re not filling your tank with high-quality nutrients.” The result: A vicious cycle in which the brain keeps sending signals to eat more in order to get more essential vitamins and minerals.
Weaning kids off junk food requires a process. “Identify what it is they crave,” says Stein. “If they love corn chips, for example, do they crave the crunch, the salt or the corn?” Once you identify the specific element, look for healthier foods with similar properties. If it’s the corn flavor, try corn on the cob. If your kids love pizza, it may not be the cheese or the bread they like, but the tomato sauce. “Identify what they love and maximize it,” says Stein.
“Identify what they love and maximize it.”
In addition, Stein says parents who hate the taste of certain foods should be careful not to withhold those foods from their children. “We transmit our unspoken bias without words,” she says. “If you hate something, your child will likely also reject it unless you recognize the food’s inherent goodness and offer it out of love.” Children typically like blander flavors. But if they’ve become used to over-processed food, use these flavors on other foods to entice them. “If they like maple syrup, put some on broccoli,” says Stein. “It may not appeal to you, but it may be enough to get them to take a bite.” Gradually reduce the amount of syrup and then cut it off completely.
Ease into new foods. If you want your kids to try sushi, start with a piece of cooked fish and pick a flavor that is familiar to them. Make small, subtle changes until they become used to it. Use the same process when switching from processed food to healthier fare. Start with a vegetable and add a familiar flavor. For example, to switch them from crackers and cheese, try celery with peanut butter. “Think of the process like a seesaw,” says Stein. “You’re trying to bring up the nutrients while you lower the junk.”
Kids often shy away from raw or crunchy vegetables; try cooking them until tender or add small amounts to soup. “Some of their choices may originate from baby food,” says Stein. “But I’ve never seen a child who’s resistant to all vegetables.” The override is hunger: if the child’s hungry enough, he’ll eat it. Avoid banning foods or drastic cutbacks on the ones they crave. “They’ll just run over to their friends’ houses to get at the cookies,” Stein warns.
Embrace Good Nutrition Early
Parents need to embrace good nutrition before the baby is born, both to serve as role models as well as for their own health, says Dawn Weatherwax-Fall, RD, CSSD, author of “The Official Snack Guide for Beleaguered Sports Parents” (WellCentered Books). “Kids watch and mimic their parents,” she says. “If they see you sipping on soda all day, they’ll want to do the same.”
In addition, mothers who regularly eat fruits and vegetables while breastfeeding give their kids a head start in accepting these foods, according to research from the Monell Center in Pennsylvania (Pediatrics 12/07). Infants ate more green beans and peaches when their moms ate them regularly than infants whose mothers ate these foods only sporadically.
Moms often avoid salmon while breastfeeding due to fear of mercury poisoning, but the omega-3 fatty acids in fish (such as salmon) help brain development, says Weatherwax. “Omega-3 supplements provide the benefits without the mercury.”
Make food choices fun for toddlers. “Have ‘freebie’ foods kids can have in moderation during the week,” suggests Weatherwax-Fall. “Ask them to decide if they want to ‘use’ this food as their freebie that day. You can make it their choice to choose seven foods a week or one ‘freebie’ food a day. This teaches them moderation, not deprivation.”
Rather than label foods “bad,” use innocuous phrases: “These foods won’t help you get stronger.” And don’t force kids to eat something, but tell them they need to take a taste. “Treat it as a ‘no, thank-you’ portion, meaning they can politely refuse a portion but still must try at least a small bite. It could take a child 20 or 30 times to try something before they decide they like it,” says Weatherwax-Fall. “And make sure you eat it yourself.”
“It could take a child 20 or 30 times to try something before they decide they like it.”
The texture of certain foods may be unappealing, so try variations. Instead of raw or sliced tomatoes, try including salsa or tomato sauce in meals. “Kids often like purees of foods like sweet potatoes, beets, carrots or even V8 Fusion drinks,” says Weatherwax-Fall. “Watch portions on juices, though, because of the sugar.” Choose water or milk instead, and limit juice servings to between 1/4 and 1/2 cup.
Have trouble saying no? Then consider the benefits of establishing good habits at this age. “If you knew your child was destined to have heart disease if they didn’t change their diet now, would you be more willing to make the necessary changes?” says Weatherwax-Fall. “Of course you would.” It takes planning and extra time, initially, but the new, healthier habits quickly become second nature. Keep a food bag or cooler in the car for trips or between soccer games or while running errands. Fill it with trail mixes and other healthy snacks for when you don’t have time to stop.
Give Kids Responsibility
Allowing your child to prepare meals can be fun and teach good nutrition by getting them involved. “When your kids come home from school, instruct them to make their school lunch for the next day,” says Weatherwax-Fall. “Even 10-year-olds enjoy making their own lunch.” Have a drawer with fruit, another section of the pantry for bread, and so on. They can choose one from each category. “Just limit their options and provide guidelines,” says Weatherwax-Fall. Or, once a week, let them take charge of a meal for the family. Teach simple cooking techniques (like boiling an egg), and nutrition pointers (such as the difference between healthy oils and unhealthy solid fats).
The Holzemers found that cooking healthier becomes easier when the entire family takes part. They spend most Sundays in the kitchen. “It creates an opportunity to be together,” says Liz Holzemer. “We’d rather cook together than go out.” Simple grilled chicken and pasta with vegetables and herbs from a farmers market have become family favorites. And both kids have free rein to try new dishes.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” says Holzemer. “I let them learn from their own mistakes. I ask, ‘What would a “Food Network” chef do?’”