If it sometimes feels all the forces of the universe are gathering against your attempts to feed your children a healthy meal, you might be onto something.
Televisions, tablets, smartphones and computers form an external media environment that’s roiling with industry propaganda, much of it aimed at selling low-quality, high-profit products—including lots of sugary and fatty foods.
Even internally, your child may be biologically inclined to crave sweets.
So you’re definitely up against it when you try to sell your kid green broccoli over a bowl of Cap’N Crunch’s Oops! All Berries cereal.
But if you can manage to establish healthy eating habits in your children’s formative years—some emphasize that first year—they stand a much better chance of avoiding bigger health problems in their teens and adult life.
Spectrum Health registered dietitian Sarah Flessner, a pediatric nutrition specialist, suggests some simple steps for parents intent on helping their children develop healthy interactions with food.
To start, adopt a “shared responsibility” approach to mealtime.
“The idea is giving everyone a little bit of say,” she said. “A lot of times it’s a power battle with kids, but you won’t help them by forcing them to eat it.”
Flessner follows registered dietitian Ellen Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding model, which lets parents determine the “what, when and where” of food, while kids get to decide “how much” and “whether to eat.”
“Parents have their job and kids have theirs,” Flessner said.
The gist: A child can eat what’s offered or choose not to eat. If the choice is the latter, the child must understand food won’t be available again until the next scheduled meal.
Most kids will naturally choose a balanced diet if they’re provided the right opportunities, Flessner said. They might skimp on the broccoli one day, but they’ll eat it another day. Or they’ll at least eat something leafy or cruciferous.
“One day it looks unbalanced, but that’s natural,” Flessner said. “You have to look at the week.”
Flessner’s tips for parents caught in the food fight:
Get kids involved in mealtime
One night a week, Flessner lets her kids choose what they want to eat.
“My son always picks pancakes,” she said. “Which is fine, because we do whole wheat pancakes.”
She adds eggs for protein and her son will add a random vegetable such as peas or broccoli.
“Not something I’d pick,” Flessner said, but in combination it fits the bill—a vegetable item, a whole grain item, a protein item.
“Depending on what they had that day, you might include a calcium serving,” she said. “And then come up with fruit-based dessert or some strawberry parfait, yogurt, blueberry crumble—things with less added sugar.”
Put kids close to food
Planting a small garden or visiting a farmers market each week are ideal ways to help kids develop a greater appreciation for their food.
At the farmers market, they can try strange, new vegetables and herbs. “Farmers markets are great to take kids to look at new foods,” Flessner said. “They often have samples there, and the kids get to see who grows it.”
A garden gets them close to the plants at every stage.
“Even a container garden works,” she said. “Usually, the more invested kids are, the more they’re likely to try (a food).”
Re-think stringent limits
Two simple rules here: Don’t use food as reward or punishment, and don’t keep all things off limits.
If you promise your kid a cookie for eating dinner, “you’re teaching them cookies are better than what they’re eating,” Flessner said.
And if you promise them sweets for getting all A’s, “you associated food with positive emotions. That’s not something you want to encourage.”
Sweets and treats shouldn’t be totally off limits.
“Birthday cake and holidays have their foods,” Flessner said. “Build in time for kids to have access to that.”
One night a week, head out for ice cream after dinner, or bake cookies. “We want kids to feel like they do have access to these things,” she said. “Teach them limits.”