This NPR article inspired this post. Apparently Georgia is running some controversial ads to try and fight childhood obesity. I think the ads are going to shed light on a subject that has been taboo for decades. Fat kids. There I said it. Not to be mean, but to be honest. Many kids (and adults) have excessive fat on their bodies. The fat is dangerous. Yes dangerous. In case you haven’t already heard, our children’s life expectancy is shorter than our own. What could this mean for future generations – our grandchildren and great grandchildren? Scary stuff. Something’s got to give. I want to break the cycle, not perpetuate it. I’m doing everything in my power to improve my kids’ chances. By example. And by showing them how to eat healthy. That’s right. I’m the mom who doesn’t like it and discourages her kids from eating candy and chips and soda and cake and ice cream. Though I try not to be a fruitcake. (See below.)
My kids eat vegetables. But they didn’t used to. Because I didn’t offer them. And the road hasn’t been easy (still isn’t). But I do it anyway. My three year old only eats a couple – celery (thanks Wonder Pets), broccoli (sometimes) and french fries (technically a vegetable, but just barely). But I’ve noticed that just like the older two, she’s eating more of them each week. Guess what else she loves. Tofu. Loves it! Because it tastes good. You probably don’t believe me because of it’s reputation in America as a disgusting or tasteless health food. I didn’t believe it until I actually tried it a couple times, a couple of ways.
Before you can convince your kids to eat well, you have to learn to do it. If you find healthier food to be tasteless (or even gross), give it a fair chance. Try not to write a food off after just one taste, or even just one preparation. It’s okay to be honest when you don’t like something. The kids have seen some funny, interesting and honest reactions from me. But keep trying it. They’ll get the lesson and hopefully you’ll learn to like it, not just tolerate it. Here’s a list of just some of the foods (and drinks) I used to dislike but now love:
- unsweetened beverages
- arugula (only after about the third try and after learning that salty and acidic foods compliment it’s flavor)
- beets (just getting to know and like them)
- rosemary, sage and a bunch of other herbs
- Greek yogurt
- goat cheese
- salmon (just in the last couple of weeks)
- all kinds of beans
- cole slaw
- and of course, tofu – so versatile, yet I only had one image of it before we started this journey:
Here’s a link to some beautiful tofu on Google Images. Okay they aren’t all beautiful. But most of them are. And for the record, like chicken, it has an extremely mild taste, so a flavorful preparation is recommended. If you think you don’t like it, you probably just didn’t like the flavors used to prepare it. And the texture can vary and can also be manipulated if that’s your hang up. It can be delicate like cottage cheese, or firm like chicken.
But this post isn’t about tofu. It’s about getting kids (and you) to eat better, to be healthy. I’m no expert but I can tell you that I’ve learned a lot from my picky eaters over the last couple of years. One thing is certain, if you want kids to eat healthy food you first have to offer it (hello!?) and don’t give them an unhealthy option to choose from instead. In other words don’t serve chicken nuggets, french fries and kale. Duh. No need to elaborate further on that one. What are you afraid of? Insist (that’s right insist) that they take at least a reasonable bite. You do it all the time with other things. You insist they go to bed at a reasonable hour. You insist that they wear their seat belt. So ignore those “experts” that claim forcing your kids to eat their vegetables will give them some negative associations with the food. They’ll get over it. They might not like it this time, but keep offering it – over and over and over again. It can take something like a dozen tastes to change our minds about a particular food. Try another preparation. Use flavors they love. Just don’t give up on nutritious food – or your kids.
Here’s another tip. If they refuse to eat, let them go hungry. They won’t starve. And the next time you offer them something nutritious, they’ll probably be hungry enough to try it. Maybe not at first. They’ll probably rebel if you haven’t been eating this way for long. But if they refuse, they probably aren’t really that hungry. Trust me on this. Even if they’ve barely eaten for days, they won’t starve. If you cave and offer their favorite junk food, you are undermining your efforts and their chances to learn to eat healthy. It helps to look at the big picture. Have plenty of the fruits they love, milk if they’ll have it and other healthy options for snacks or meals. Stock up on the nutritious things they already love. And don’t expect them to be eagerly eating vegetables in a month or even a year. We’ve been at it for two years, and we still have issues. But it’s a million times easier than it was those first couple of weeks. Trying new foods and learning to like them is a lifestyle, not a childhood phase. As I said, I’m still doing it.
Come up with some ground rules. For instance, our kids must take a “thank you” bite. Always. At home and away. If they want seconds or dessert, they have to eat everything they’ve been served. I only serve them small portions to begin with. Sometimes a half portion or even just a couple tablespoons. My kids are used to trying new foods or new dishes now, though they aren’t always thrilled about it. Many of the foods that used to make them gag (literally, but I still made them take a bite) are some of their favorites now, or are at least tolerable. And I don’t care if the only reason they eat the kale or tofu is to get more chicken or dessert (we don’t have dessert regularly though). I am even going to start offering special privileges for clearing their plates. Like offering to play a board game after dinner, or to do one of their chores for them – dishes perhaps. The point is for them to give the food a chance. Who knows, you might like it Sam I Am. And don’t forget to praise them when they eat well or try something they don’t like.
While this post is mostly about offering healthy food, don’t forget to teach them portion control. My kids are only allowed one serving of each food, until they clean their plates (unless of course it’s more vegetables). If they want a second single serving of chicken after they’ve eaten salad and roasted carrots, then go for it. Americans tend to over estimate portion sizes (thanks to “individual” sized bags of chips with two servings, soft drinks and super sized meals in almost every restaurant, but especially fast food joints). A serving of vegetables is about 1/2 cup (1 full cup for greens like spinach and lettuce). A serving size of meat is 3 ounces (not 4). A single slice of bread is one serving, so a sandwich includes two servings of bread. Learning how much to eat is equally as important as learning what to eat. Here’s a handy chart.
I want to suggest one other thing. Eat and prepare meals together as a family. Families who eat together are usually closer, eating habits are better and kids are more confident, less likely to drink, do drugs, smoke, be depressed, have sex at a young age or get pregnant (just to name a few). Countless studies and research has been done on the subject. Tons of articles have been written about it. We eat dinner together nearly every night. My kids are almost always in the kitchen when I’m preparing dinner, usually doing homework or chatting (though I still need to work on letting them help more). It’s not always fun and games, but as the kids get older, the benefits become more and more important. And linger at the table after everyone is done eating. Finish your glass of wine or coffee. Chat. Goof off. Plan future events. Talk about your day. Our best conversations happen after the meal. Serious subjects like sex and drugs and bullying. Sometimes we get down right silly. Like the time we used an iPhone app to turn our voices into a song and sent it to a relative. Or the night we gave London some silly (but useable) examples of what to do and say next time a boy in her class hits her or one of her friends. The dishes, the homework and the baths can wait just a little longer. This is more important.
***Updated to add a couple of things.
1) Sometimes kids will refuse to eat something even if they like it, just to be right. One of mine decides with her eyes first and will rarely admit she likes anything new. (Very discouraging and annoying.) But I’ve accepted it. Sometimes she’ll continue the charade indefinitely. But she doesn’t put up as much of a fight when I put it on her plate. Sometimes she’ll say it’s “okay”. But she’s quite stubborn. So am I. I just keep putting it on her plate. It’s like a little dance we do.
2) Texture can be a big problem for picky eaters. If something doesn’t taste good AND it’s mushy, it’s like a double whammy. She dislikes some delicate fish and hates beans and used to hate mashed potatoes (keep reading). Funny though she never had a problem with grits, which have a very distinct mushy/gritty and slightly slimy texture that many people do have a problem with. I have always added milk, cheese, lots of butter and sometimes sausage or bacon in our grits, preparing them almost like a rich risotto. Sometimes I even add onions, tomatoes, chard or spinach, mushrooms… My guess is that she just couldn’t resist the rich flavor. (That gives me an idea. Maybe I should try this with beans.) I mentioned that she used to hate mashed potatoes, but now she devours them. Especially with gravy. That’s my girl!