By Marcia Mangum Cronin
Who knew we had a nationally designated day for promoting healthy diets and solving our nation's food problems, ranging from humane treatment of farm animals to not enough fresh fruits and veggie in our diets? We do, and it's today, Oct. 24.
I am not a dietitian, nutritionist or trained health care professional, so I by no means have all the answers to the nation's food problems. But I am a parent, and I will modestly say that I've done a pretty good job raising two healthy young women to be healthy eaters.
I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, from breast-feeding to school lunches to dining out, and I may share those at a later date, but today I want to share my favorite tip for raising healthy eaters: Teach kids to enjoy good fresh food and expect them to like what you serve.
My husband and I love to cook and eat. Good meals excite us, so when we had children we naturally wanted to instill that love of good food in them. The single most important thing we did right was to present our daughters with a variety of good healthy foods and expect that they would enjoy eating them.
Too many parents (and politicians and TV commercials and even health professionals) assume that children won't like certain things. And most often those things are green and good for you: things like broccoli, cabbage, peas and zucchini. If you want to teach your child at an early age that they may not like certain foods, why not suggest that French fries and sugary cereals are yucky? It may not work, but we seem to have done a great job brainwashing our kids to think that fried foods and processed sugary foods are fabulous and healthy fruits and vegetables are not so desirable.
My kids have always loved broccoli, peas, squash and most other fruits and vegetables. In preschool, when they asked my older daughter to draw her favorite foods, she got upset because she didn't know how to draw an artichoke!
The idea is not to make dinnertime a battle. It's to create a fun family time where everyone enjoys a meal together. Don't make a special meal of chicken nuggets and fries for the kids just because you think they might not like what you're serving. Instead, be sure that they will eat some part of the meal—enough so they won't go hungry. For instance, if we were serving something we thought might be too spicy for our young kids' tastes, we would sometimes remove a little from the pot before adding the final seasonings. Or we would give them a small serving of the sauce with larger portions of the meat, starch and vegetables. We usually put a little of everything on their plates—and most of the time, they ate most of it!
Remember, young kids don't need a lot of food. If they eat the rice and peas, but leave the meat (or vice versa) at one meal, they'll be fine. It's not as important that kids get every nutrient at every meal as it is that they eat a balanced diet over the course of the day.
Don't give up if your kids don't love every healthy food you put in front of them. Kids' tastes do change and mature, so keep encouraging them to try again. Tell them how yummy it is, and don't remind them that they tried it once and didn't like it.
Try variations on a theme. My kids didn't like Brussels sprouts when they were younger. Large Brussels sprouts can taste bitter, especially to a child's palate, but we kept trying. Now, one of their favorite dishes is baby Brussels sprouts roasted with red grape halves, olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. There are variations on almost any food that your child may like if you don't accept the "I don't like that" verdict.
There were nights our girls balked, and our response was always the same: "Did you try a bite? If you don't like it after you try it, eat more of what you do like. If you're still hungry, you can get a piece of fruit." Believe me, our kids never starved.
If feasible, involve your kids in the grocery shopping, meal planning and even cooking. Sometimes just calling children into the kitchen to stir a few ingredients, snap some green beans or taste a sauce will pique their interest and make them want to try the finished product.
If you encourage children from a young age to try different foods, they will know the expectation and be less likely to resist. And remember to set a good example. Make sure you fill your plate with plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. They will likely follow suit.
My daughters, now 17 and 19, continue to amaze when they eat at friends' houses because they are adventurous eaters and will try almost anything—and usually enjoy it. While instilling this love for food, we've also tried to instill an appreciation for good health and physical fitness. Because even with good food, there can be too much of a good thing. More on that another day.