While I have yet to master the “perfect parenting” thing- I have not slept consistently all night since I was pregnant with my first- there are some things I am pretty proud of, mainly my son’s eating habits.
When I see him eat rainbow chard with gusto, or pop pinto beans in his mouth as if they were candy, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride. He is not the pickiest of eaters, but he is also not the kid who will eat anything at any time, so I know that at least some of his habits are coming from what I teach him every time he is in the high chair.
Here is what I do, I hope it will help you feed your children healthy foods
1- Nurse: I know this is not something everyone can do, or something you can go back to, but if you can, do it. The flavor of breast milk changes depending on what you eat, so you are exposing your child to different flavors from the very start.
2- Offer variety from the beginning: I started feeding solids to my son when he turned 6 months. I started with brown rice cereal- that I made from scratch- and added new foods one at a time. Sometimes the cereal was rice and millet, other times I added buckwheat. I added fruits, vegetables and legumes shortly after.
3- Make food yourself: I know it can be hard, but making food at home, rather than buying pre-made meals goes a long way. Packaged products, even adult ones, have a similar flavor combination often relying on sodium, fat and sugar for flavor; what you make at home will have a more varied flavor pattern that your children will get used to.
4- Don’t be afraid of bold flavors: I sauteed spinach in olive oil with fresh garlic and make a curried butternut squash soup he loves so much he goes “mmmm” after every spoonful. Kids don’t have to eat bland foods, expose them to the same flavors you enjoy.
5- No options: This one was hard for me, as my son has always been in the very low-end of the weight percentile, but I had to trust my instinct. When I offer him something and he refuses without trying I give him no other option. I calmly and kindly tell him that it is OK if he doesn’t want it, but that there isn’t anything else to eat. I then take the plate away from him and place it on the counter where he can see it but not get to it. After a couple of minutes, when he realizes I will not be giving him bread, cheese, bananas or milk (his favorite foods) he asks for his food back and eats it.
6- Limited snacks: Another hard one, but I have noticed that a big snack almost always means a non-existent dinner. If he truly seems hungry (meaning he had a good breakfast or lunch and is asking for food before the next meal without any prompting), or for whatever reason time between meals will be longer than usual, he does get a healthy and filling snack, otherwise I don’t offer him a snack in between meals, especially if he has refused his previous meal.
7- Favorite foods come last: If his favorites come first, he won’t eat anything else. I fill his plate with vegetables, once he’s eaten enough I give him the rest of his meal. He usually ends up eating up his favorite and eating more vegetables afterwards too. He drinks milk (rice or almond) after his meal, not with it.
8- Patience: After a long day at work or a short night of sleep patience is not my best quality, but it is a must. I sit with my son for every meal he has and I am around for. Sometimes I eat with him, others I don’t; often I am either cleaning up or cooking our next meal, but I am there with him, talking with him and encouraging him to eat his food.
9- I eat what he eats: Just think of how miserable you feel when you are eating a salad and your friend is across the table having a burger! He sees me eat chard, and spinach and millet, and so he sees it as normal food, not as healthy food mom is making him eat.
10- Break it up: For a toddler who does not need a whole lot of food to survive, I think he is one of those people like my dad who eats out of necessity rather than enjoyment, I think breaking up the meal makes him eat better and more. When he stops eating I give him his vitamin (which he loves because they are like candy) or a piece of fruit. He usually goes back to his food to eat a little more, making me very happy.
11- Make it fun and interesting: I don’t have time to make those cute bento box meals with adorable faces, colors and shapes, but I can make food more interesting by offering varied ingredients. I am also not opposed to making little balls out of brown rice or polenta that he can pick up and pop in his mouth, and letting him play with his food to some extent, which research has shown helps with his development anyway.
You probably don’t want your big kids throwing food on the floor, but you can make meals interesting by trying new recipes, or making fun foods homemade, such as pizza with lots of vegetables in the tomato sauce, or grilled chicken sandwiches.
12- Let them participate: My son comes to the grocery store with me and carries produce in his hand while sitting in the cart. Then he is in the kitchen with me, mixing salt or flour in a small bowl while I cook. For older kids, participating in meal planning, shopping and cooking will help them learn about ingredients and cooking.
13- When all else fails I make soup and pour it over whole grain pasta: Who doesn’t love pasta? I do this when we’ve had a particularly hard couple of days in the eating healthy department, I make vegetable soup, blend it, and use it as pasta sauce with a little cheese over it. I don’t do this for every meal, see item 5, but if I am worried he is not eating well or enough, this is a great alternative to absolute frustration or to give in to his desire of eating grilled cheese for every meal.
As he grows up he’ll have days and stages when he’ll refuse certain foods just because. Changing eating habits is easier than starting them, but not impossible. How do I know this? My mom switched from white to brown rice when I was in High School, she also started adding seaweed to our vegetables and making tofu, seitan and tempeh part of our dinners -For the better part of my teenage years I thought I was living in the weirdest household ever and my friends reminded me of this daily, now I am grateful she exposed me to healthy foods and different flavors.
What are some of your meal-time struggles? What are some of your proven strategies?