Everywhere we turn we’re bombarded with information about healthy eating. Some of it good, others not so much. Some sources say cut this or that, some say low fat, low cal, but all the processed
junk food is okay because it meets the basic requirements of being low fat and low cal.
When we’re bombarded with all of this information, it can make it really difficult to know just which information to pass onto our children. as parents, we can become stressed that our child isn’t eating, or is eating too much, or the wrong food. We often loose sight of the most important point – a balanced diet. A balanced lifestyle.
For those who know the Canadian food guide or food pyramid, you know there are a certain number of foods a person should eat every day – even children. I don’t want to go against the established authority here, but I don’t agree with those guides. At least not completely. The guides say children ages 1-5 should be eating basically the same, and that doesn’t cut it for me. Just as adults need to adjust their intake for their body needs, so to should children.
An active slim five year old does not need to eat the same as a plump, not quite walking one year old. Therefore I’m telling you to throw out the guide, and trust. Trust your child to eat what his or her body needs. But, and this is very important, it’s up to you, the parent, to provide a healthy varied diet. It is not up to you to force your child to eat something. In fact if you do, you’re more likely to cause a more long lasting aversion, whether to that particular food or to certain textured foods, or just new foods in general.
For younger children, just starting to eat solids, allow them to pick at the food, play with it, taste it, spit it out. Assume more will end up on the floor, them, the table, the floor, the dog, than in their stomach.
After they master the pincher grasp, as they toddle around the house, periodically stop them and offer, where they stand, a healthy food. Also have available for them to graze a healthy variety of finger foods. Fruits, vegetables, crackers, cheese etc.
As they get bigger and have clear preferences, allow them to choose what they want to eat, allow them to help with the shopping, make the list, find the items, allow them to cook. Even a two year old can help in the kitchen, even if it’s just washing the lettuce, or stirring the batter.
The older they get, the more freedom you provide. Give your child the information they need to learn to make healthy choices. When you’re shopping and they ask for the cookies and you say ‘no’, tell them why. Is it because of the budget, or for health reasons. For us we often say ‘no’ to store bought, but will offer to make something similar, but healthier at home. We also tell the girls why an item isn’t healthy, we show them the label. As people with celiac’s disease we read a lot of labels, and that’s good for our children in a number of ways.Most importantly it gets them looking. One day they’ll decide for themselves what to eat, it’s our job to give them the information they need to make balanced choices.
When our children ask us for a certain food we talk about why it’s a fun food or a healthy food. Sometimes we’ll talk about other foods they’ve chosen to eat that day, and give them information about balancing their diet with healthy and fun foods. If they choose to eat marshmallows for breakfast,t hen they probably won’t feel very good, they could have upset stomachs, they might not have the energy they need to play. If they choose to eat a tomato, mushroom, and cheese omelet, they’re more likely to feel good, and have energy to play.
If you have a picky eater and you’re worried about the over all health of your child? First, don’t panic. Second, it’s mostly harmless.
One way to encourage healthy eating in children is to give them power. The more power they have over the experience the more likely they’ll eat. Let them shop, let them make the food, let them choose when and how to eat. It’s easy to say we eat when we wake up, then again at noon, and again at six, with a snack in between, but children don’t work that way. Many children need more food earlier, and less food later, but when we pressure them to eat out of synch with their body, they eat less than they would if they followed their body.
Make the food fun. I invited a friend over and she said she’d bring fresh fruit. I expected a store bought platter, or a dish with cut up fruit. Nope. She brought a party. A long wooden skewer through the center of the regular old fruit made it so much more fun, and when they were done eating they had swords! Okay not all children turn everything into swords, they could’ve been magic wands.
Cut the cheese, bread, anything into fun shapes. Have healthy food available at all times of the day, pre-prepared and ready to snack. Have your children help prepare the food. And whatever you do, don’t stop your child from eating because ‘it’s almost time for dinner.’ If you’re having trouble getting your child to eat, then don’t stop them from eating, ever. Let them figure it out. Sure you may not have the family meal, but there are other ways to make up family time. Play a game at the table instead.
You can encourage your child to figure out what they don’t like about certain foods. We always tell the girls, you don’t have to eat it, but I want you to taste it. We don’t force, and they can spit it right back out. The point is to try new foods, not worry about manners. We’ve discovered Ella loves octopus, sushi, and countless other foods. There are several she won’t touch, but as she explores she’s willing to try new foods, and old ones she didn’t like before become better. Not always edible, but better.
We also don’t lie about foods. We won’t tell the girls, just taste it, then insist they taste a certain amount. Licking it is good enough. If we wanted a certain amount eaten, we’d say that from the beginning. We also don’t hide foods from them. If we offer them a piece of chicken covered in cheese, we don’t hide a vegetable in order to get them to eat it (though grating cheese over vegetables is something my girls love). If they don’t like it, that’s okay. They can pick apart their meals and eat what they choose. There have been times when Ella’s had eggs, peanut butter sandwiches, or some other quick, low flavour food for supper every night for a week. Everyone else has dinner and she makes her meal, or waits until someone else is ready to make it for her.
Children rely on us to get them food and drink, they’re not able to choose to eat watermelon or pizza on a whim. Someone needs to get it for them. As adults we’re able to run to the store and buy something we suddenly want. Remembering that allows me more patience with my children, when they don’t want what I’ve made. And that is the final point to remember, patience. Realize this too shall pass, and one day you’ll look back and laugh about how your child only ate, or never ate such and such. We can lead a horse to water, but not make him drink. The same is true with children. Let your children know why their bodies need a mixture of foods, why a certain food is a healthy choice, give them the information, and allow them to decide what to do with it. You are, after all the one doing the shopping and can veto some choices if you feel the need.