Feeding kids is such a beautiful way of showing your love – it can also be a tedious, annoying struggle, and so frustrating. But those dang kids, they need to eat EVERY DAY. More than once!!
Food can be a real point of control between parents and kids, and creating consistent expectations and boundaries can really help. As a Naturopathic Doctor and mama of 3, here are a few strategies I've developed to promote and support healthy growing bodies. Maybe some of these will help in your household….
The Basics (as in, good rules for adults too)
Every meal & snack has to include protein. Protein is the thing that will regulate your blood sugar and therefore banish the hangries. Nobody likes to be around a hangry toddler. Or teenager. Or adult really. Ok, nobody likes to be hangry or be around hangry.
Start your day with fruit. Fruit can be one of the first foods that kids help themselves to. They’re juicy, filled with essential vitamins, antioxidants and fibre and they’re naturally sweet, so usually an easy sell. For adults who are looking to lose weight, or people who are having trouble regulating blood sugar, berries are a good choice. For everyone else (unless there is an existing known sensitivity) – it’s a fruit free for all! Let them choose – see – we’re giving them control here. Controlled control.
Lunch and after school snack has to start with vegetable and protein. After the requirement, then if they're still hungry you can let them have that bowl of cereal or crackers or whatever else they're begging for (within reason of course). But at least they've started with some good building blocks and they're not shoveling empty carbs in anymore.
Dinner gets protein + 2 vegetables – and one of them has to be green. This may mean a ridiculous amount of broccoli or cucumbers for a while, but keep offering a variety of greens, eventually your kids may surprise you. Mine started a green bean race - who can gobble one green bean at a time the fastest. Now they play it every single time green beans are served.
Family dinner should happen at roughly the same time every day, with the whole family sitting and eating together. No devices at the table. Research shows that eating together as a family increases emotional well-being, positive social behavior and life satisfaction – regardless of gender, grade level or family affluence (Elgar FJ, 2013).
Additional strategies - Quick Tricks
At dinner – each kid gets one veto. That means of all the foods offered, they can choose one thing that they don’t have to eat, taste or even consider. Parents – make sure there is enough variety that if they veto something they’re still getting a complete meal. I will often have a "build your own" component to dinner - because there's always something that one kid likes that the other doesn't. This works well for the veto rule. So if it's a build your own taco, or salad, or whatever, one kid vetoes the chopped tomatoes, one kid won't touch the guacamole, the other says hell no to the olives. That's fine, one veto each. They have control. All good.
New foods – at the very minimum they must be smelled, licked or tasted. Kids need to be introduced to some foods 8-15 times before they can really, truly decipher whether they like them or not (Carruth BR, 2004). I used to tell my kids this all the time, and one day I insisted my now 10 year old have a little nibble of a lychee after which he made a face and said – “Well, at least I only have to try it 14 more times before I like it!”
Number of bites of a food = how many years old you are. This is especially for the busy kids who just don’t have time to sit down and eat, or if you’re eating something that isn’t necessarily their favourite, but they will accept it. You want more pasta? OK, how old are you? 4? Ok, 4 bites of your soup and then you can have a second helping of carbs.
Keep an ongoing list of fruits and vegetables you have in the house – chalkboards or dry erase boards are great for this. Then there is a visual they can choose from. Also helps with meal planning and not “losing” wilty vegetables in the back of the fridge.
Eat a rainbow. Key for ensuring diversity in the diet and getting adequate vitamins, antioxidants, phytonutrients. Fun dinner game too – how many colours did you eat today? Which colour are you missing?
Include kids in the meal planning, shopping and choosing of foods. Giving them ownership over some aspect of the food gives them some of that essential control and also can really help you understand what they like and how to find a common balance. For me, I like cooking, it’s the deciding what to make every single day I find incredibly challenging. By asking what they want – it triggers ideas for me of how I can turn the inevitable requests for pizza and burgers into healthier options with a variety of phytonutrients included.
Stay tuned for quick, easy, healthy proteins ideas for snacks and breakfast and more recipes.... Tuesdays on the Blog
Carruth BR, Z. P. (2004). Prevalence of picky eaters among infants and toddlers and their caregivers' decisions about offering a new food. Journal of the American Dietetic Association , Jan;104(1 Suppl 1):s57-64.
Elgar FJ, T. S. (2013). Family dinners, communication, and mental health in Canadian adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health , Apr;52(4):433-8.