I was a fat kid. Not lazy, just fat. I rode my bike all day long, played “war” in the woods, got mangled during full-contact football on ice sheets during the deep freezes of Ohio winters; I got plenty of exercise every day. As most children do, I loved sugary and salty foods, and ate too much of them.
Kids love sweet stuff not just as a taste preference, but as a physiological predisposition. Children have the same amount of taste buds as adults, but they’re concentrated on a much smaller-sized tongue. Therefore, flavors are much more intense. A chocolate milkshake that tastes “good” to an adult probably tastes “amazing” to a child. It’s also a well-observed fact that kids love sugar, and the more sugar they eat, the more sugar they want (think of a kid devouring their weight in Halloween candy).
I’m not advising parents to never let their children have sugar or “fun” foods; these foods become more of a problem when they’re accessible at all times, or turned into a reward. Children quickly begin to associate doing a good job at something (getting good grades, winning a baseball game, or going potty all by themselves, for example) with a food reward (pizza party, ice cream, fast food). When an accomplishment is always celebrated with something unhealthy, it inevitably becomes the end goal for going after the accomplishment in the first place. Humans are programmed to expect “rewards” for “being good”; it’s the same reason you find adults out at happy hour after a long day at work.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to inspire kids to eat healthy foods, and intend to explore this topic further in the near future. For now, here are five tips:
Be a role model
If you kick your dog every day when you come home from work, your kids will learn to kick the dog when they come home from school. Surprise, surprise. The same theory goes for food; if your kids see you making a habit to eat healthy foods, they’ll do it too. Never forget how malleable and impressionable a young mind is. Kids are learning how to live from your example.
If at first you don’t succeed…
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “oh, my kid doesn’t like vegetables.” Guess what? If your kid doesn’t like vegetables, most likely, they’ve only tried vegetables a few different ways. If they don’t like raw broccoli, why not try it dipped in hummus? If they don’t like it that way, why not try roasting it with butter and sea salt? Or chopped and sautéed in coconut oil with some mushrooms. Or as a soup? Research indicates that it takes an average of TWELVE times before a child will come around to eating a “new” food. Have patience and keep trying. Don’t let yourself become your child’s short-order-cook, though; work with them to find foods they’ll eat, but don’t let them walk all over you in the process.
Get them involved
Children will be more interested in a meal they helped create. Let them help in the kitchen, let them touch and play with their food. Tell them why certain foods are good for them and praise them for having fun during food preparation and mealtimes. Let them create their own colorful fruit or vegetable salad with as many ingredients as they want. Help them create their own salad dressing, or make their own healthy pizza. The sky’s the limit in the kitchen. Kids aren’t worrying about weight gain, diabetes, or heart disease, because they don’t know any better. Be the nutritional superhero and coach.
As a stay-at-home dad and all-around busy guy, I completely understand the urge to grab some prepackaged snack to have on-hand for snack emergencies. Try to go with whole, real food, and preferably homemade. Some easy snacks include cut vegetables, almond butter, hummus, homemade muffins, raw cheese, Greek yogurt with berries, diced chicken, bananas, and apples. There are endless options out there, just make an effort to stay away from prepackaged food.
Don’t be manipulated by marketing
I believe that marketing directly to children should be illegal. Roughly 93% of children can recognize McDonalds, and not just the logo; they’re keenly aware of the characters, the playground, the signature colors. Children today are swimming in a branded environment. A simple way to shut the door on these shameful forms of marketing is not watching tv, or avoiding commercials at the least. Although, unless you live on Mars, your kids will still be inundated by branding and “commercials” every time they take a ride in the car. Your children don’t need the french fries, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, chemicals, unhealthy oils, food colorings, artificial sweeteners, and added sugars in any of these commonly advertised “kid” foods.