If there is one thing I care about, it is food. I mean really, who doesn’t care a lot about food? But here in the good ol’ U.S of A we have an absolutely TERRIBLE relationship with food. Yummy food is highly processed, good food is cheaply manufactured and highly packaged, and all drinks are loaded with calories. The worse part is that so much of it is just habitual. Which is why I’m so determined to nip it in the bud by teaching my children about food.
I heard someone once tell me that when they have children they will never allow them to have candy or sugary baked goods because it is so addictive. While they definitely had a point, I would never be so mean to my children as to deny them yummy sugary foods! For me, good eating is more about development of discerning taste, so that little debbies snacks aren’t even desirable because you could rather have a homemade oatmeal cookie with cream cheese frosting.
There is this great scene in the movie Food Beware where a father talks about how he loves the school’s new organic food program because it is helping to educate his sons palate and I thought Man, what a great way to put it! If food eating is habitual, educating and developing those habits for your child is what you should be doing!
So let’s start with infants. What should you be feeding your baby? Avoid that rice or wheat or oatmeal cereal! Not only is this packaged stuff not very nutritious, but developing a taste for carbohydrates is something you want to put off for a bit. Babies who eat a lot of carbs are less likely to be open to many kinds of fruits and vegetables. There is a worry about allergies, but if you let baby just mouth and taste large pieces of food before allowing them to actually eat it, you can get a sense of whether a food may cause a problem.
This is a great little chart but really, just about any mushy fruit or vegetable is great to start out with. If you think it is still too thick, add a bit of water. I also really love this easy recipe for cooked bread if you feel like you are ready to begin giving carbohydrates. You can also make it with warm milk instead of water. This way you can control the quality of the food they are eating.
It is notoriously hard to get toddlers to eat new foods, which is an evolutionary advantage, since at a time when children are beginning to walk, it would be terrible for them to begin eating random plants. They would likely be poisoned. So prior to the toddling age it is important to expose them to a wide range of foods. I also just would puree a bit of whatever we’re eating for the night, and continue this trend into toddlerhood. There is no such thing in our family as special meals if someone doesn’t like what’s being served (except for Dad). While toddlers can be super picky, enforcing an “eat this or nothing” policy helps let them know that it’s not ok to just eat one thing over and over and over again. My son for awhile was all about cereal, and that was all he wanted to eat, so I stopped buying cereal. Now he will happily eat whatever else we’re having, and his stomach is glad for it. Sometimes you just need to avoid the temptation completely. If we don’t have goldfish, I’m forced to cut up apples for the kids instead. Sometimes not having and opting out of purchasing things can be your best friend. If this is hard for your kids, maybe don’t bring them to the grocery store with you next time!
Easiest snacks to do?
I suppose it does seem a bit cruel and strict to make your child eat something or go hungry, especially if they genuinely don’t like what’s being served, but this is the kind of choices that adults have to make all the time. If I am hungry but don’t like what I have in the house, I simply don’t eat. If I am hungry but the only thing I have time for is fast food, I usually just don’t eat. I’m not starving to death, I’m just making a good food choice, because I would rather postpone my hunger to the next meal instead of dealing with the regret and stomach pain and long term effects of eating something that isn’t good for me, and this is fundamentally what you want to be teaching your child. Good food choices isn’t always just about what to eat, but is a lot about what not to eat.
This also brings up the subject of snacks. While eating many small meals a day is great for your metabolism, children have such a high metabolism anyway this is really not necessary to do for them. The much greater problem for children is not eating much at the main meals and then getting unhealthy snack foods later. It amazes me how parents tote around food to placate their children at all times. Snacks are to cure hunger, not boredom, and connecting hunger and boredom is a big mistake. Children need the three main meals, a snack once a day, and maybe a cup of something like tea or milk or even bouillon to drink before bed. That’s it. Anytime they ask to be fed, tell them to wait until their next meal or their snack (which should be a the same time every day). We usually have “desert” for our snack, since it is early enough that the sugar will be put to good use instead of sleeping on it.
The only drinks that children should be drinking are water, a bit of milk, a bit of tea (the decaf kind), and occasionally orange juice, with or without s. pellegrino, flavored milk, milkshakes, or mixed drinks like wassel punch. No juice, no soda.
For older children there should definitely be a ___ number of bites rule. There have been so many times when my daughter will refuse to eat something because of how it looks or smells or just because it’s different, only to find out she likes it once she takes a bite. All new foods should be required to be tried. The biggest thing that helps this, for children of all ages, is talking about the food. It is much easier for my daughter to try something with an open mind when I ask her to take a bite and describe how it tastes. It forces her to assess what she likes or doesn’t like about it, and to take the time to really feel the texture and taste before making a decision about whether she likes it. I can remember how she would go on and on about how she didn’t like the taste of mushrooms until we ate some sauteed ones and really talked about how they tasted. Once she could pinpoint what those strange flavors were, she decided she loved mushrooms!
If you’re still having trouble getting your child to eat healthier foods, cut things up into fun shapes. It is absolutely amazing how many carrots a child will eat when they are cut into hearts or stars or whatever. A simple piece of cheese becomes so much more appetizing when it’s been cut with a cookie cutter to look like a squirrel. Food manufacturers do this all the time to get your children to like their food, you can do it too, and it takes next to no amount of time.
Teenagers should not be allowed to make their own food decisions! I cannot stress that enough. Although bad food habits begin in childhood, they really become ingrained during the first steps of freedom. While I hardly think you need to force a teenager to eat a certain number of bites (good luck trying that anyway!), learning about food should still be occurring. Continue talking about how things taste, retry some of those old foods they insisted they don’t like, and take them out to a great restaurant to try something new and exotic. Teach them how to pack a well balanced lunch for school, continue exploring tastes and textures and cooking techniques. You don’t even necessarily have to have a huge range of food options, but as long as you can talk and teach them new things about food you will be educating their palate. It’s only when people stop thinking about daily food and take it for granted that they begin eating things that aren’t the best. Talk about nutrition, talk about how to grow food, talk about cuts of meat, anything and everything should be on the table for learning about good food (was that just a pun?!).
But the most important thing is to set a good example. That doesn’t mean that you have to eat a perfectly healthy diet, but instead that you leave all of your food baggage at the door. I’ll never forget watching Opera once where a mother was talking about her 5 year old daughter having an eating disorder (yes, five years old!) and saying that she never thought about how her own constant dieting, and talking about being or feeling fat, and dissatisfaction with her body and diet was influencing how her daughter perceived food.
So don’t diet in front of your kids, talk about eating healthy foods. Don’t disparage your weight, talk about how we can keep our bodies healthy by reducing the fatty foods we eat. Don’t go grocery shopping while you’re hungry, make a list, fix your budget, and stick to it (money is really the enemy of healthy eating. If you can’t afford to go out to eat, you have to cook, and if you have to cook, you are much more likely to cut out a lot of junk that is in processed and manufactured foods). Don’t talk about “indulgences”or “guilty pleasures” but talk about rewards for eating well. And most importantly remember, food should always be a pleasure, and teaching this to your children is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.