When my son, Luke, was six-weeks old, his pediatrician told us: “If your child isn’t sleeping through the night, it’s your fault, and not his.” After two painful nights of hearing Luke cry and not getting up to feed him, he slept “like a baby” the entire night.
This lesson of tough love is much like what parents face at meal-time. In the same way we have to instill healthy sleeping habits, we also have to promote healthy eating habits. This is especially challenging when research has shown that junk food may even be addictive.
Below are a 12 suggestions for getting your child to say “no” to the junk food and “hello” to healthier alternatives.
1. Don’t cave. Even if your child is a picky eater, don’t let them get away without trying new foods — otherwise they’ll stick to their junk food favorites. How can they say they don’t like fish and veggies if they haven’t tried them?
2. Make healthy alternatives to junk food favorites at home. Our family’s substitute for fried chicken fingers is a recipe Luke prefers to the deep fried version. Other ideas include baked russet and sweet potato ‘fries.’ Home-made pizzas can be healthy, too, especially the chicken pesto pizza we often prepare (recipe below).
3. Keep fast food to a minimum. You can’t hide McDonald’s or Burger King from your kids forever, but avoid the temptation as best you can. If you are tired after a day at work, try to make something easy at home instead, such as quick meals.
4. Limit fried foods, especially when eating out. Years ago, before I ever had children, I swore to myself, “No child of mind will ever eat fried food.” But that was before I had to deal with temper tantrums, restaurants’ kid menus and the realities of life. It’s almost impossible to avoid fried foods altogether, but keeping them to a minimum is a good second best option. Ironically, in a region of the country where fried foods are plentiful, you’ll find an obesity-hunger paradox.
5. Avoid boxed mixes, like macaroni and cheese. I’m picking on Maccaroni and cheese, but few boxed dinners are all that different. With processed foods like these, it’s not only about what your child is eating (which, by the way, happens to be a lot of carbohydrates and fat), it’s also about what your child isn’t eating – such as adequate protein and other nutrients. Below is the nutrition label and ingredients list for the Kraft product:
Enriched macaroni product (wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate [iron], thiamin mononitrate [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid), cheese sauce mix (whey, whey protein concentrate, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, sodium tripolyphosphate, citric acid, sodium phosphate, lactic acid, calcium phosphate, yellow 5, yellow 6, enzymes, cheese cultures).
If you make a dish like this from scratch, you may not eliminate the fat, but at least you can cut out the sodium, yellow 5, yellow 6 and enzymes. Or if you only have time for the box, try serving it alongside protein and something green.
6. Prepare vegetables with creativity. I have already shared 10 easy ways to get your kids to eat vegetables. I’ve introduced them gradually with my child and had a fair bit of luck. But gradually is the key!
7. Read them the Berenstain Bears. One evening before bed not too long ago, I read Luke a book called, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food. It’s a wonderful portrayal about how the Bear family eats too much junk food and everyone starts gaining a little too much weight. Father Bear even split his pants in the process, proving that better food and exercise was just what the doctor ordered.
The book has made quite a lasting impression on Luke. Now, when Rob is eating junk food, Luke reminds him that he “needs to stop before Mommy has to sew up his pants.” You might try this or other age-appropriate books which might strike a chord with your children.
8. Time snacks right, and keep them healthy. Snacks are instrumental in providing children energy throughout the day, not to mention beneficial in helping curtail melt-downs. However, if children eat too many snacks, especially ones prior to meal-time, he/she will often sacrifice nutrient-rich meals for less healthy “fillers” (e.g., chips, gogurt). So make sure to time them right and manage quantity, too. Sugary drinks can fill their bellies, too.
Another important important consideration is quality. Though it’s easy to grab a bag of chips, try to sneak in some healthier alternatives, such as protein smoothies, cheese, peanut butter, hummus and veggies. Parenting.com provides 20 snack suggestions if you are looking for some new ideas.
9. Say no to sugary drinks. A 12-ounce can of Coca Cola contains 39 grams of sugar, or almost ten teaspoons. 100% fruit juices and other sugar-sweetened beverages are no better. Minimizing these beverages can be one of the single best things you can do to reduce sugar in your child’s diet.
10. Bribe them! Rewarding children for eating healthy foods can be beneficial in developing good habits. Know what motivates your child, such as money, a trip to the pool, a new book or the occasional dessert, and try this tactic on occasion.
11. Set a good example. Much like fitness, setting a good example with what we eat goes a long way towards establishing healthy habits for our little ones. If parents don’t eat veggies, for example, it’s going to be challenging to convince children to do so. Monkey sees as monkey does, so eat well and watch your little monkeys do the same.
12. Fix one meal. I’m a firm believer in fixing one meal for all. It’s less hassle and it teaches your little ones to eat what’s on the table, regardless of what’s being served. Jenna at Food with Kid Appeal has some smart suggestions for what to say when kids refuse food.
There’s certainly no silver bullet when it comes to kids and eating, but little steps can make a big difference in getting the nutrients a growing child needs.
Chicken Pesto Pizza
1 Home-made or store ready-made pizza crust
1 TBSP home-made pesto, mixed with 1 TBSP olive oil
1 chicken breast, lightly seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt & pepper, baked or grilled (cooked about 80%), chopped into bite-sized pieces
1-2 TBSP capers, pan fried in olive oil (about 10 minutes)
1/2 onion, sliced and carmelized
Fresh Mozzarella Cheese, chopped
Roll out pizza dough and spread pesto. Top with remaining ingredients (and any other of your favorites) and cook about 12-14 minutes in hot oven (450 degrees).