People often comment on what a healthy eater my daughter Alice is. While I definitely lucked out in having a child who is in love with food (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree), her infatuation with apples and avocados wasn’t by accident. I worked hard right out of the gate to give her exposure to nutrient dense foods and to keep, for a lack of a better word, processed crap out of her little mouth. As a preschool teacher, I play witness to the eating habits of children all day long. They say children develop the eating habits they will carry with them all their life by age 5. By age 5! That is 5 short little years to teach a child that half of their plate needs to be brimming with fruits and veggies. 5 short years to teach them that water should be their beverage of choice instead of sugar laden chocolate milk, juices and sodas. 5 years to instill that cupcakes are a treat, not a right of life. When it comes to motherhood and my role as a preschool teacher, I take my job of exposing the little humans in my care to healthy food and opportunities seriously. While I am certainly not a trained doctor, nutritionist, or child psychologist, below is my two cents of what I think promotes a healthy childhood:
1. Make your own baby food. Have you ever tasted jarred baby food peas? What about jarred pears? Nasty stuff. Just look at the color of them. Jarred foods have been so over cooked and processed to make them safe for a long shelf life that they don’t look or taste like what they are supposed to be. When a child’s first exposure to foods tastes like that stuff does, no wonder they freak out at the idea of having to eat them later on. They don’t know what real pears or peas taste like. They only have the old, over processed jarred food as their reference. Is making your own baby food time consuming? At first yes, but once you get into the routine of it, it’s actually quite easy. When my daughter started eating solid foods, my husband was deployed, I was working full time, and I didn’t have any family that was closer to me than 1000 miles away. So, when I say “if I can do it, you can do it”, I think I’ve earned that. My routine was to make her baby food for the week on Sundays. I would steam, puree, and freeze while rocking out to my favorite music or with Alice in the ergo carrier attached to me. In an hour or so, her food for the week was ready to go and I got to enjoy the peace of mind that my daughter’s first experiences with food actually tasted like the real thing.
2. Get them involved. Children are naturally curious creatures. They long for new experiences that allow them to learn and soak up knowledge. Giving them a personal experience with something foreign (say, a radish) will suddenly make them interested in it. My preschool classroom is lucky enough to have a sizeable garden for us to plant, tend, and harvest. The children adore being part of the gardening process and are eager to try whatever we pull out of it, even if they have preveriously claimed they don’t like it. I have never seen as many children wolf down green peppers as I did at the snack time following the harvest of our own bell peppers. I also cook with my students and daughter a lot. Seeing the creation of a food from start to finish is a math and science lesson in itself with a tasty result. The children have an excitement and eagerness to sample something they helped create, whether it is a carrot freshly pulled from the ground or a loaf of bread, and it opens the door for so many foods they may turn their nose up at otherwise.
3. Lead by example. If you want your kiddo to eat steamed broccoli, you need to eat steamed broccoli (and not while holding your nose and gagging on it). If you want your child to turn off the television and go ride their bike, you need to put your cellphone away and get your cycling gear on too. Children model what they see. Let’s be honest, the old saying “do as I say, not as I do” never, ever worked for any of us. And it doesn’t work for this generation either. If you are commited to helping your child learn heathy habits, you need to have the same habits as well.
4. Have a “treat day.” I talk often about my own life-long struggles with finding a healthy lifestyle. I want desperately to have paved the road for my daughter, but I also embrace that I need to teach her balance. Whether I like it or not, Alice will grow up in a world where cupcakes, lollipops, and sugary drinks are considered a “normal part of childhood.” I can’t change everyone’s way of thinking about what should be in my child’s lunchbox. However, I don’t want my daughter growing up feeling like she missed out or was denyed something all of her friends got to enjoy on the regular. At the tender age of 3, she doesn’t have a clue as to why she can’t live off of ice cream like she would so love to do. Frankly, she probably won’t have a solid understanding of why that isn’t an acceptable thing until she is in the double digits. In the meantime, I can instill in her that treats are just that, TREATS! A treat is not something you get every day. It takes the “special” out of it and you just start expecting it instead of appriciating it. To help Alice learn balance and moderation in healthy eating, we have dubbed Wednesdays “treat day.” Every Wednesday on our way into school, Alice and I stop at a favorite bakery to split a muffin of her choosing (typically chocolate chip with tons of sugar on top). I found a bakery that uses very clean ingredients and I can feel good about feeding my child, yet it is still wildly special to her as it is not something she gets to do everyday. Wednesdays have not only become our food treat day, but also a special tradition that her and I both look forward to.
5. Be sneaky. My daughter does not like zucchini. It doesn’t matter how I offer them to her, if she sees a hint of zucchini in a dish, she refuses the whole shebang. I have accepted that she is allowed not to like certain foods, but it doesn’t mean I still shouldn’t try to get them into her diet. Zucchini *happens* to find its way into many of her favorite soups and pasta sauces. I hide it in baked goods (chocolate zucchini bread anyone?) and throw it into our morning smoothie from time to time. Alice is none the wiser as she chows down on zucchini riddled goodies and I’m thrilled that she is consuming the vegetable period.
6. It is never too late to start. Not everyone discovers the importance of a healthy lifestyle when their children are babies. But even if your kids are older than an infant, toddler or preschooler, you still have time and influence to help guide them in a healthy direction. In fact, when they are older, you can even be more matter-of-fact about why a healthy banace is important. You can teach your older children to read food lables and explain why your family opts to eat a certain way. Teach them to cook more indentpendently (and perhaps assign them a day to make the family dinner and allow them to choose what they will prepare). Start a garden or hike a mountain as a family. If they resist at first, be patient and take baby steps. The key is explosure and simply offering your child healthful lifestyle oppertunities. You might be surprised on what they embrace.