Do you see Instagram posts about kids who eat healthy and wonder if they can’t possibly be true? Do those parents have some superpowers or are they just more capable than the rest of us? You aren’t alone in feeling inadequate in such moments! Fixing your kid a nutritious meal after a full day’s work and then staying strong through dinner-time tantrums can be exhausting. But fret not. We’ve got some tips on how you can encourage your kids to eat healthy without becoming the villain. But first, let’s look at what constitutes a healthy, wholesome meal for kids.
- A healthy and balanced diet consists of foods that contain a unique mix of nutrients—both macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals,
- Forcing a meal when your child is not hungry, offering a bribe for eating healthy or insisting they clean their plate even though they feel full only sets them up for mealtime anxiety and a power struggle over food,
- Pairing healthy options with foods they like is the most effective way to get your kids interested in what they eat.
What should your kids’ plates look like?
Eating a variety of foods is key to a healthy, balanced diet. Each food has a unique mix of nutrients—both macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals—so getting everything in the right quantities is all there is to it. Here’s a simple formula you can follow. Fill half of your child’s plate with fruits and vegetables. Next, split the other half of the plate between whole grains and healthy proteins. Whole grains may include whole wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, quinoa, brown rice and other minimally processed whole grains for their gentler effect on sugar and insulin. Healthy protein options include fish, eggs and poultry. Try limiting red meat and processed meats such as bacon, sausages and hot dogs. Beans, peas, nuts, seeds and other plant-based proteins also offer a good variety of healthy proteins.
How to get your kids to eat healthy
Now that we’ve got a blueprint, let’s look at some ways to navigate those dinner table negotiations.
1. Respect your child’s appetite
Forcing a meal when your child is not hungry, offering a bribe for eating healthy or insisting they clean their plate even though they feel full only sets them up for mealtime anxiety and a power struggle over food. What’s more, your child may become less sensitive to their own hunger and fullness cues because of the overwhelming frustration and anxiety. Instead, serve small portions and allow your child to ask for more.
2. Offer choices
No one likes to be forced to do things. Offering them a choice is a good way to respect your kid’s autonomy. Even if it is between homemade granola bars, apple slices and whole wheat crackers with fruit and cheese, the freedom to choose allows them the independence they need without compromising nutrition. You can also take this a notch higher and get your kids involved in meal planning. Give them the guidelines for what must go into every meal (three servings of veggies, one serving of carbs and one serving of proteins, for example) and see what they come up with. This lets them choose and saves you the energy that goes into creative meal planning.
3. Introduce gateway foods
Children are naturally picky about trying new foods and that includes most healthy foods. According to physician Aastha Kalra, the first five years of a child’s life, when they’re forming tastes and habits, are the best time to introduce a variety of healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins. If your kids are older, try pairing healthy options with foods they already like. If they don’t like broccoli, for example, you could try adding it to an omelette or pasta. Likewise, you could serve veggies with their favourite dips and sauces.
4. Snack right
When it comes to snacks, it’s all about timing and portion control. And for young children, portion sizes must be small. As Jodi Greebel, a registered dietician points out, you might want to avoid giving your child a snack too close to dinner so you don’t ruin their appetite for dinner. Pacifying a cranky child with a bag of chips may be an instant solution when you’re running low on energy and patience, but if your goal is to help your kids develop healthy eating habits, you’d have to stick with the strategy. According to Ysabel Montemayor, another registered dietician, snacks should be packed with protein and fibre to help kids keep full longer. Here are some of her recommended snack options that you can try at home:
- Whole-grain crackers and cheese
- Apple slices with peanut butter
- Carrots or celery sticks with hummus
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Unsalted/lightly salted popcorn
5. Stick to a routine & sit at the table.
Offer meals and snacks around the same time every day. If your child skips a meal, a regular snack time is still an opportunity to get some nutritious food in. Make sure they get plenty of water between snacks and meals. A study shows that families who eat together are more likely to eat less fried food and sugary drinks. It has also been correlated with having five servings of fruit and vegetables a day; and a wholesome dietary intake full of nutrients.
6. Give your child a guided tour of local markets and farms
One of the best ways to get your kids interested in what they eat is by nurturing their curiosity. Take them to a farm or local market for a guided tour of the process that goes behind the foods they eat. Allow them to take in all the different types of fruits and vegetables in all the sizes, shapes and colours they come in. Encourage them to pick the ones they’re drawn to. Once home, involve them in rinsing vegetables, helping you cook or setting the table. Greebel also suggests showing children pictures and videos of how food works in the body because children like to know how things function.
7. Associate foods with colours
Ask your kids to pick a few of their favourite colours. At every meal through the course of the day, they could pick a colour and eat a vegetable corresponding to that hue. You could ask them to monitor their own habits by encouraging the element of play. They could use vibrant stickers in their journal to denote the food they ate.
8. Set an example
The environment, which includes family, media and culture, plays a major role in influencing children. According to Dr Kalra, parents, in particular, play a central role in influencing a child’s dietary habits. The parents’ attitudes and habits around food can lead to healthy or disordered eating.
9. Don’t withhold dessert, offer it as a reward
Depriving your child of dessert or using it as a reward teaches them to associate it with all that is good and desirable. This only increases the child’s craving for desserts and sugar in general. Instead, set aside two nights of the week as desert nights, skipping dessert for the rest of the week or redefine it as fruit yoghurt, overnight oats and other healthy options.
Getting your kids to eat healthy can be a task. But with effort, patience and a few tricks up your sleeve, it’s not impossible. First, ensure you include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy proteins in their diet. But how do you get them onboard to eat all this? Respect their appetite and autonomy by not forcing them to eat when they’re full and giving them a say in what they eat. Try to pair new foods they’re reluctant to try with those that they already like, keep timing and portion control in mind while offering snacks and get creative, give your kids a behind-the-scenes peek into the food they eat by taking them to a farm or showing them videos on how food works in the body, turn off the television and all other distractions at mealtimes, lead by example because you are the greatest influence on your child’s eating habits and finally, never use dessert as a reward. Correlate food with colours and incorporate an element of fun. These steps will help you convince your child to eat healthier.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns and before undertaking a new health care regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.