One of the most important tools a nutritionist has is the ability to persuade people—especially children—about the value of proper nutrition. I do not need to tell you that children who easily maintain nourishing diets tend to feel better, are healthier, and think with greater clarity. They can be more physically active in play and tend to do better socially. The question is how can we persuade kids to permanently maintain good ways of eating? Much of the solution has to do with how you help them frame their relationship with food and eating.
Let’s step through this:
We tend to live our lives by habit. This is especially true of children, who live by the habits we parents dictate and demonstrate through our actions. Kids naturally crave consistent rhythm, boundaries and structure in their lives and schedules. What time they go to sleep at night, get up in the morning, how often we tell them to brush their teeth, whether your family makes your beds every day; these are all habits of daily life. So is what your family eats, when and where you eat, how much you eat. All habits. Every family has its own habitual way of doing things. The question then is: what are the best techniques to use to foster good habits in your children, especially when it comes to diet?
Well, what if we all were to consider habitual healthy eating as a way of being, rather than something that needs to be enforced or agonized over? In other words, if healthy eating is just a way of life for your kids—if it is simply what they do rather than some ideal you are imposing on them—then maintaining a nourishing diet may just become easier.
What has worked in my home has been breaking foods down into two groups: “Growing Food” and “Sometimes Food.”
o Growing Food is pretty much the wholesome stuff you’d expect: lean meats, whole grains, veggies, water to drink, low-fat dairy, etc.
o Sometimes Food includes unbalanced meals, such as macaroni and cheese, which is high in fat and simple carbs. Cheeseburgers on bleached-white buns slathered in mayo are also considered Sometimes Foods, as is pizza.
The distinction between sometimes and growing foods naturally makes sense to most kids, who will participate in supporting their own health as long as the boundaries are clear enough. If we allow our kids—and ourselves!—some Sometimes Food some of the time (so no one feels deprived) we can make regular growing food meals more the norm. A healthy diet simply becomes just what your family does. If you and your family just expect that food should be healthy, than that assumption easily becomes a way of life.
And isn’t it great when things get easier?
Some “Growing Food” Treats:
Kids love treats, of course, and even when we are steering our kids toward growing food there are fun and tasty things we can serve them. For instance there is that old stand-by “ants on a log,” which consists of good ol’ nut butter on celery (the “log”), studded with raisins (a.k.a. the “ants.”) While Ants on a Log is most often made with peanut butter, I often recommend substituting almond butter. Almond butter is high in necessary omega 3 fats, good for brain functioning and a host of other health benefits. If you must go nut-free, sunflower butter is a terrific alternative.
As a substitute for sugar drinks, I have developed one that my kids love. I squeeze two or three large, sweet oranges into a pitcher of water and add two teaspoons of orange blossom water (found in the ethnic sections of many super markets or Asian or Indian food stores.) I serve this over ice. I dilute the juice with water because—while preferable to sugary soda drinks— full strength juice is actually exceedingly high in sugar. My orange drink is sweet enough but not too sweet, healthy and surprisingly refreshing.