As a parent seeking to support your child’s health, you have quite a lot to work against: clever advertising of sugary foods, video games that all their friends are playing, and handheld devices that make it all too easy to sit and watch a show any time any where, just to name a few. Fortunately, there are a few simple, concrete things you can do starting right now to help support your child’s health even in the face of these obstacles.
1. Make a pick plate
Each day set out a plate of cut veggies, fruit, and nuts and leave it out in an accessible place so that your kids can grab from it as they come and go. You could also put some dips out to entice them further, like guacamole, hummus, salsa, or peanut butter. Having those healthy foods visible and accessible makes it more likely that they will eat them. Ideally, they will fill up with these and not even ask for the less-than-healthy snacks later. But, even if they don’t, at least they are eating more fruits and veggies than they were before. Further, the more they eat these healthy foods, the more of a taste they will develop for them.
2. Get the whole family active
Find some fun active activities your whole family can do together, like hiking or biking. For indoor active time, try heading to your local trampoline park together or pick up the game Hyperdash to play inside and get everyone moving (according to some reviews, parents enjoy it for their solo workouts without their kids as well!).
3. Talk about food choices in the positive
We now know the potential harm that using the wrong language and pressure around food choices can cause to children as they grow older, particularly in a world where we are constantly bombarded by images of what we ideally should look like. Instead of focusing on foods that your child shouldn’t or can’t have, focus on what they can have. Use the word “we” as much as possible when describing eating habits to create a sense of unity around those habits and to take the focus and pressure off your child and their eating habits. For example, “we eat grilled chicken because it makes us stronger” or “we eat vegetables at every meal because they help us not get sick.” This type of language used regularly normalizes healthy eating even when TV commercials are screaming about snacks loaded with sugar and artificial dyes.
4. Get the kids involved in food prep
Young children tend to be much more enthusiastic about things they’ve played a role in, especially if they see that task as being “grown-up” or important. Try to get your kids involved in the groceries and meal prep as soon as you’re able to. In the grocery store, let them make decisions by giving them choices, like blue potatoes, orange potatoes, or white potatoes; yellow string beans or green string beans; long squash or round squash – you get the picture. This gives children a sense of control over decisions and they’re more likely to eat something they chose. When it comes to dinner prep, give them age-appropriate tasks to do to help you cook, like rinsing spinach, breaking the tops off the green beans, or helping you measure out ingredients with measuring cups and spoons. You could even get your children their own kid-friendly cookware sets like these. When kids play a role in cooking (something very “adult”), they are really proud of that and are more likely to eat the food they prepare. This also provides you with valuable bonding time and helps kids get more familiar with different foods.
5. Don’t give up
According to current data, it takes a child being exposed to a new food about 12 times before they are willing to even try it. Be patient and just keep re-exposing them to that food. Continue to put healthy snacks into their lunches, but don’t be surprised or upset when those snacks come home at the end of the day. Keep putting them back in there.
6. Find opportunities to work in more vegetables
I’m not necessarily saying to be sneaky and hide veggies in your kids’ food. What I’m saying is that there are foods out there that are great opportunities for enriching them with even more vegetables and it won’t be a big deal in terms of flavor or texture. For example, pasta sauce can be loaded with different veggies, like peppers, mushrooms, even carrots and broccoli, and you can always toss it in a blender if it’s too chunky with those veggies added. Another great option are sweet potato brownies. You cut down on the sugar and flour and use sweet potato instead – it creates a brownie that is always fudgy in texture and your child gets to eat lots of fiber and phytonutrients. Here is my favorite sweet potato brownie recipe.
7. Eliminate sugary beverages
Perhaps the greatest thing you can do for your child’s health is to eliminate soda, juice, and other sugary beverages from their diet. Yes, even juice. When you juice a fruit (or a vegetable) you are destroying the fiber in it and that leaves little to nothing to buffer against the sugars in it. So essentially you end up with a glass of sugar with some nutrients in it. The American Heart Association recommends that children ages 2-18 consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day but the average American child consumes over 75 grams of added sugar a day and soda and fruits drinks are 2 of the biggest contributors to that. Without going into scare tactics, we know that excess sugar consumption as a child leads to chronic health conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension just to name a few. Instead of sugary drinks, try giving your child water with fresh or frozen fruit in it or seltzer instead of soda. And, if you are going to allow them to have soda or juice, make sure that it is on a very rare occasion.