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Raising children on an alternative diet can be challenging -- but when they're under your roof it's easier to facilitate their eating habits. You may make it past toddlerhood with an adventurous eater of the healthy foods you serve and feel ready to breathe a sigh of relief. But then, seemingly overnight, your eat-anything kid morphs into an elementary or middle schooler who suddenly turns up his nose at his favorite healthy foods, who craves candy and junk food because she is now exposed to differing dietary ideologies and immersed in a school culture where unhealthy food dispensation is the norm.
And there are always the naysayers: "Just wait until he/she is out from under your thumb and wants to try a hamburger!" Fear not. All is not lost. Here is an array of tried and true tips for keeping your kids on the healthy-eating path as you navigate birthday parties, school carnivals, and the influence of your child's peers, who seem to subsist on candy bars and soda, and who are prone to general tween and teenage rebellious tendencies.
Get Kids Involved
- Older kids are likely learning about different cultures and civilizations in school. Emphasize their learning with some international flavor. Try a new ethnic restaurant or go to the library and check out a new cookbook that corresponds with what they are learning about in class.
- Make eating healthfully a party. Hanging out with their peers is where most grade-schoolers want to be. Have a veggie sushi rolling sleepover instead of offering the standard, take out pizza. Or get kids in on the pizza-making process. Start with a whole wheat crust and offer healthier toppings such as roasted veggies or pesto.
- Depending on their age, introduce older kids to basic nutritional concepts. Talking about vitamins and nutrients and what foods contain them can help interest kids even more. Book suggestions can range from Growing Vegetable Soup for younger kids to Teen Cuisine : New Vegetarian for older kids.
- Bring kids in to the meal-planning rotation. A friend of mine gives food magazines to her three school-aged children, and lets them pick out recipes they like. Mom buys the ingredients and helps with prep and execution, but the kids are already learning an important skill: meal-planning is great for tweens and teens to practice.
Stay Consistent in Offering Healthy and Varied Food Options
- Keep offering fruits and veggies every day, at every meal. Even if your kids won’t eat more than a few bites of them.
- Model good behavior. Show kids that eating well is a choice that you make every day because it makes a person feel good while maintaining their health and promoting overall wellness in mind and body. Even though you are an adult, you have chosen not to sit around watching 16 hours of television a day and subsisting on ice cream and cotton candy. This simple fact speaks for itself!
- Trade recipes and food ideas with other parents; especially with those who come from different cultures. Lately, there have been a bunch of popular books published on healthy eating habits in other parts of the world such as French Kids Eat Everything. What is similar in all these books: healthy, whole foods eating is a family affair that takes time and effort, but which reaps huge benefits that extend beyond being solely related to diet.
- Make a healthy-eating village to raise your kids. Speak with families with whom you often have playdates, meals, and parties. Make a pact to offer healthier foods at these get-togethers and at other events such as post-soccer game snacks.
Make Eating and Food About More than Just What Tastes Good
- Give kids popular examples of healthy eaters. Olympic athletes, singers, actors, and successful entrepreneurs often pick healthy foods as the base for their diets because it allows them to perform better.
- Tell your kids the truth about the ingredients of some of the more unpalatable junk foods out there. Shocking examples include the horse hooves found in gelatin and the coloring made from crushed beetles that was formerly used in Starbucks’ strawberry drinks.
- Agree that life is not always fair (a common complaint from kids when they are denied certain foods while their peers get to eat junk food). Part of being a parent is making the healthiest choices possible for our kids, and no one should feel the need to apologize for that. When you’re confident in your choices, your kids will sense that and they will be more likely to follow your lead.
- Make holidays and special occasions about the event and not about what there is to eat. Once-a-year treats and food traditions are something to look forward to, but such a huge focus is given to what we will be eating for certain days of the year — and the significance of the holiday is sometimes lost. It may help to add to the day’s fun with arts and crafts projects and creating new family traditions (such as taking a family walk after Thanksgiving dinner).
- Most parents find that their kids rebel even more when they tighten the reigns. Kids often go crazy with unhealthy choices when they are away from mom and dad’s jurisdiction. Curb this tendency by offering treats once a week or by offering healthier alternatives of traditional treats. Teaching kids that having something special once in a while is a wonderful way to give them self-control.
Make Food Fun
- Try different veggies and fruits different ways. Eating a plain apple every day can get kind of monotonous. Roast them, make them into muffins, serve them with peanut butter, juice them along with some carrots and greens.
- Get sneaky if you really feel your kids are resistant to eating healthfully. We are firm believers in not hiding ingredients from our kids, but a little avocado in the pudding or spinach in the lasagna never hurt anyone, right? Have kids try and guess the secret ingredient at the end of the meal.
- Make junk-food trade-ins. Treats are literally everywhere these days (for occasions big and small). Cut down on the amount of junk food consumed by offering trade-ins at home. Kids can get books, toys, or even money in exchange for trading in candy from Halloween or carnivals.
- Don’t obsess too much. Older kids are at a fragile age for exposure to eating disorders. Making them overly self-conscious about everything they put in their mouths is likely to backfire.
- Make mealtime a time for family discussions and daily recaps. Creating a warm, comfortable environment at the dinner (or lunch or breakfast) table is key. Your whole family will enjoy their meal and relax in each other’s company if the surroundings are supportive and loving.