Make Healthy Eating a Family Affair
By Bevin Clare
Learn how to introduce new, nutritious foods into your family's routine.
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Food can be a source of great joy for children, but it can also be a source of stress for their caregivers. Our brains and bodies aren’t equipped to deal with the vast array of food options we have available to us today. Consider, for a moment, the limited options our ancestors had when deciding what to eat each day. Physiologically, their bodies would delight in what was sweet and rich, seeing those items as generous sources of food, since they were rarer in nature. This tendency is still alive and well in humans today as we encounter different decisions about what and how we eat each day.
Even for adults with decades of practice feeding themselves, the nutrition landscape can be difficult to navigate. Advice flip-flops; availability changes; habits, patterns, and trends shift; and mass confusion about what to eat abounds. Many adults find themselves struggling with food-related choices, including changing long-established patterns, implementing new things, and navigating social pressures. Given how much we struggle as adults with food and nutrition, how are we supposed to guide the next generation?
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The good news is that children are naturally curious, and nutritious food can be delicious and wonderful. Maybe your children aren’t willing to eat something new yet, but they might be willing to learn about it, plan for it, grow it, shop for it, and even cook it. Teaching babies and young children about nutrition is simple and fun, and they catch on fast. Older children and teens can quickly realize that nutritious food is a powerful tool that can help them feel great.
All of this starts with developing a love of food. A healthy diet comes from a healthy relationship with food, and love is a great place to begin. Adults may need to revisit their fundamental relationship with food to discover a place to begin with their children. Babies and young children need to see food as an exciting landscape of options and sensory possibilities, while at the same time understanding that change can be slow and intentional. Older children and teens can explore food from any of their interest angles, including play and art, history, nutrition, culture, and even their social lives.
Learning to love food can start with small steps or with leaps and bounds. With each of these suggestions, try to concentrate on the positive, and quiet the negative. Focus most on being intentional when making food choices, not on what’s “good” or “bad.” Cultivate a love of food with your babies, kids, and teens though exploration, shared experience, gentle expansion, and a genuine sense of willingness.
Build a Foundation
Overview: Start with the basics: Food is fun. This is an easy lesson with sweets and treats, but focus instead on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, spices, herbs, and the delight of trying new things. Fundamental lessons in nutrition can be simple and inspiring, even for young children. As much as possible, fill your life and satisfy your love of food with delicious and nourishing things, and try to avoid emphasizing the “can’t haves” and the “should nots.” My No. 1 rule is to add things instead of taking things away when you’re trying to create positive change.
Babies: Let babies have fun and play with their food. Sure, it can be messy and overwhelming, but it sets the stage for food to be something that’s experienced. Even babies as young as 6 to 9 months can learn to “feed themselves” small bits of soft foods, and will love the process. (You can learn more about this by looking into “baby-led weaning.”)
Kids: Teach kids the different food groups and the nutritional value in their everyday food items. With each meal, identify the vegetables, fruits, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, as well as other additives (spices, sugars, etc.). Older kids can learn to discern which are healthiest for their body, and can make more intentional choices.
Teens: While a teen’s ability to learn about nutrition is comparable to that of an adult’s, their increased hunger can complicate decision-making. Teens can learn to identify overall patterns in their food choices, such as the balance of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins; assess their vegetable and fruit needs each day; and understand the concept of an anti-inflammatory diet. Teens can also begin to be deliberate about what and when they eat, take notice of how they feel after they eat certain foods, and balance their meals. (They can choose to eat more vegetables at dinner if they had pizza for lunch, for example.)
Parents: Learn about nutrition in a purposeful and gentle way. Focus on adding and emphasizing foods that are great for health, instead of criticizing those that aren’t. Let yourself grow along with your children as they find out more about food and nutrition.
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Create a Culture of Food Love
Overview: Let yourself delight in things that are nourishing, and share that delight with your children. Make food exciting – a culinary adventure – and infuse even difficult food experiences with a positive message.
Babies: Babies watch our every move. Let them try what you’re eating, and show them your excitement and enthusiasm about food. It’s OK for you to play with your food too; you can share a meal with them as well as the experience.
Kids: Create enthusiasm around healthy foods by starting in a place that makes sense for your family, and then expanding. Involve kids in planning meals, gardening, shopping (let them pick out a new vegetable, for example), and cooking. Doing these tasks together and sharing in your excitement can move things in the right direction.
Teens: Your teens can bring a completely new energy to food in your home. Encourage them to plan meals, shop, and cook with your help. They can take ownership of their food choices, and you can share your love of food with them as peers. Empower your teens to feel central to how your family plans, shops, cooks, and eats.
Parents: If you love food and have a diverse and experimental diet, share this with your children as they grow. If food adventures have been a challenge for you, show your children the love you have for the process of learning about your own nutritional needs, experiencing new things, and relying on the traditional foods that work well for you.
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Shake It Up
Overview: You know your children best. Some children delight in the new and the different, while a majority find their safe space in typical and steady food patterns. Flexibility and diversity is important to cultivate, however, and even the smallest changes can help promote flexibility. Above all, always consider adding new things before you consider removing food that’s comfortable.
Babies: Babies can eat a wide variety of foods. (There are plenty of food lists online.) Don’t get stuck in a rut; try new things regularly, and don’t serve them the same thing all the time. Babies can enjoy foods with herbs and spices, so don’t hesitate to use them in their food.
Kids: Kids can easily become reliant on a few key foods and brands, so take the time to shake up what you eat. Attempt to go three days, or even a week, without repeating the same meal. Try different versions of dishes, and don’t forget to add flavor with spices and herbs. Eating in new and different environments can also provide inspiration, such as an outdoor picnic, a new restaurant, or a different spot in your house.
Teens: Encourage teens to venture out of their comfort zones and try new things. Look up recipes from different cultures, or visit restaurants with cuisines your family has never had. Teens can learn what their friends and peers eat, and then try something new with them. As a parent, be ready to try things along with your teenagers and step out of your own comfort zone as well. My life as a teen expanded my parents’ palates in all sorts of ways.
Parents: If you aren’t an adventurous eater, take small steps. Try spice blends you can sprinkle on; look for foods that are similar to but different from what you’re used to; and don’t be afraid to let your children know you’re a little nervous, because this is all new for you too!
Overview: When we think of snack foods, we typically think of the chip and pretzel aisle at a grocery store. In reality, nearly anything can be a snack, and snacking is a prime opportunity to try something new if you want to keep your regular meals a bit more consistent. Snacking can also be low-stakes: Your family can try something new as a snack instead of as a potential disaster at dinner. And if you can’t come up with something homemade, don’t despair: There are lots of nutritious, high-quality options out there.
Babies: Babies are masters at snacking; it’s exciting when everything is new. Consider the nutrient density of what you feed your baby. While cereals and pasta can be part of a diet, the foundation should be a variety of nutrient-dense foods, such as vegetables (sweet potatoes, avocados, soft broccoli), fruits, legumes, eggs, meat, and whole grains, such as farro, quinoa, buckwheat, and whole wheat.
Kids: Snacking is one of the best opportunities we have for broadening a kid’s palate and filling their diet with nourishing things. If you can, put the extra time into snacks that are as healthy as possible, especially if your kids tend to cherry-pick the foods they like at dinner and leave the rest. Try a colorful plate of raw veggies and dip, fruit with nut or seed butter, hard-boiled eggs, mini-quiches, cheese and apples, soybeans, yogurt, even a small salad – there are plenty of options that kids can grab when they’re running around.
Teens: While teens have an undeniable need for food that’s quick and filling when they’re on the go, it doesn’t have to be processed. Packing a small snack box with veggies, nuts, cheese, and fruit is a great way to get extra nutrition. At home, a few veggies served with a Greek-yogurt-based dip makes a great go-to snack for growing teens. Nuts and seeds are also excellent sources of energy, and are anti-inflammatory as well.
Parents: Providing healthy snacks in our busy lives can be hard, but if you can manage a few extra moments to prepare fruits and veggies, children might be more likely to eat them as a snack than they are to eat them at mealtime. Try to create a list of “anytime snacks,” and clear a designated space in your fridge or on a shelf for these items. At my home, if we’re getting close to mealtime and the kids are hungry, I always offer up the veggies I’m making for dinner ahead of time.
Stick With It
Overview: Creating a love of food is easier if you have willing participants. Frame it as an experiment or an adventure; make it part of your routine; or take a more academic approach with older children. Changing a challenging relationship with food isn’t easy, so it’s best to work together. Recent research tells us that bitter or strong-flavored foods become perceived as more mild and palatable within about 10 days if you eat a bit daily, so give it a try!
Babies: Babies typically need to try something 8 to 10 times before they learn to like a stronger flavor. It can be a lot to stick with, but the payoff is worth it. Don’t give up on offering something again and again to your baby – they just might decide they like it!
Kids: Similar to babies, offering something to kids and having them taste a tiny bit is a great place to start. A home rule requiring everyone to sample new foods can get their taste buds experiencing more flavors. Older kids can work with parents to make a plan to try new things for a two-week period to see how their experience changes. You can have fun charting the process on a scale that ranges from “gross” to “OK” to “delicious.”
Teens: If teens want to diversify what they eat, they need to set their minds to it. Understanding nutrition can help, but being motivated to seek new experiences and flavors by understanding how their bodies work can have even more impact. Work with your teen to set a simple goal over two weeks or a month, and help them achieve it through experiments and perseverance.
Parents: The more we learn about how our experience of food can change over time, the more it becomes clear that it’s important to stick with it when trying to make changes. Remember, however, that the idea is to create a love of food, not to create frustration! Try to encourage participation from your children if you’re making ambitious changes, and be patient. At the same time, embark on your own journey, and show your family the joy of embracing new foods.
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Bevin Clare is a clinical herbalist, nutritionist, mother, plant lover, and a professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health. She is also a board member of United Plant Savers, a group working to protect at-risk medicinal plants in North America, and the president of the American Herbalists Guild.
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