How Do I Get My Kids To Eat Well?
I get asked this all the time. It’s certainly harder if kids are teenagers and they’ve been eating a typical American diet for years (also you have less control over their diet when they’re older). Starting my children eating right when the oldest was very young is one of the great blessings of my life! I now am very thankful for my oldest son’s health challenges that led us down this path.
“My kids won’t eat [greens, vegetables, brown bread, anything nutritious]” is something I hear a lot. I think a lot of the difference between me and this statement is a difference in parenting philosophy. Feel free to reject this, but “old school” is how I was raised, and it’s working with my own children, who eat a green smoothie every afternoon, and a heaping dinner plate full of salad every night, before having the rest of those meals. The philosophy is that I’m in charge.
Specifically, I’m in charge of their nutrition, we all eat ONE meal (not several different ones, according to preferences), and they can have the REST of the meal when their salad or green smoothie is gone. If they don’t want the smoothie, fine, but they go hungry for that meal. My kids rarely, if ever, choose to go hungry! No drama, no begging, no paying them to eat a vegetable . . . eating the good stuff is simply required if they want other food.
You may say that your kids are just “picky” and I must be lucky to get four who will eat anything. Not so: I have only ONE child, Emma, who has always been willing to happily eat anything. My youngest two kids are “picky,” and the oldest one tried “picky” out, earlier in life. But we set limits and boundaries, and eventually they figure out that eating the raw veggie part of the meal is required, not optional. They also figure out through repetition that they like how they feel eating so many raw vegetables.
I offer a few suggestions to you—some geared to those of you who aren’t so “old school” and believe in letting your children make all their food choices:
- First of all, I believe that all kids will eat good food. Lest you think me deluded . . . if you give kids brought up with junk food the choice between potato chips and a green smoothie, most will choose the potato chips! It’s what they know, and it’s what tastes good to them. But if you quit providing junk—eliminate it from your home—and start providing good food, and if it comes with love and education and a positive presentation, they will eventually learn to love good food and the way it makes them feel.
- As you learn about nutrition, teach what you learn to your kids. This is the big difference between the way I was raised and the way I’m raising my children: I talk to them about the WHYS. For instance, tell them that a kernel of wheat has three parts: the bran (fiber that carries food through and out of their body), the germ (all the vitamins and minerals) and the gluten (glue). Tell them that white flour throws away the first two and keeps only the glue! Kids love information and want to learn—I’m sure they don’t want to eat glue. My kids call white bread “glue” now, after being taught that. When we notice, for instance, that our daughter is one of only two girls on her competitive soccer team never asks to be taken out, we explain that her energy is likely because of her excellent diet.
- If you teach them, then it’s not an oppressive diet—it’s enlightened eating habits for life! I wrote a book called The Adventures of Junk Food Dude to help parents teach their children, in a positive, nurturing way, about good food choices versus bad ones. No “isms” in the book (vegetarianism, veganism, etc.), just common sense, good nutrition, and what the impacts are of the choices Green Smoothie Guy and Junk Food Dude make. Then I wrote a recipe book for young cooks in the Kitchen, as a companion, so kids could learn about whole foods by touching, doing, tasting, serving their families. It’s called Junk Food Dude’s Yummy Healthy Recipes.
- Add one or two things at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed. For instance, in January, commit to making whole-grain, sourdough bread with soaked grains, so you can quit feeding your family commercial yeast-risen breads. In February, learn to make green smoothies and get in the habit of making a big blenderful every day for everyone’s after-school snack. In March, replace cold cereals with homemade granola served with almond or rice milk. In April, learn to make yogurt or kefir (all these are included in my recipes) for a breakfast smoothie. In May, commit to making a big green salad every night for dinner. In June, decide to buy no more commercial salad dressings, and make your own with olive oil and vinegar (see Nourishing Traditions for lots of good recipes, though I have a couple in my recipes to start). Look what you could do in six months—that’s impressive! Most women I know have little fits and starts, feeding their family nutritiously for short periods of time and then giving up. To avoid that, you can make it a commitment and add a new improvement every month.
- When we go out to dinner, we always go to a salad bar. Every kid in the restaurant makes a “salad” out of cubed ham and shredded cheese, with some Jell-O on the side. My kids eat a huge plate of green salad, with virtually everything on it raw. I point out things that are good in the salad bar, tell them WHY they’re good, and compliment them on good choices. After the big plate of salad, I ask them to get a plate of fruit. Then, I let them make their own choices. We spend less money going to a salad buffet, and I don’t have to feel guilty about the nutritional standards.
- Make your transition to green smoothies fun, and add an incentive! Make a chart of points to earn something they want, for every day they try a green smoothie. Make the smoothie heavy on fruits and light on greens at first, increasing to the ideal ratio in my recipe. Remember, GREENS (not fruit) are the point—the fruit just makes it drinkable! Talk to your kids about how they feel as you make the transition. Eventually, no incentives will be necessary and they might be dragging their friends over for a smoothie fix like my kids do.