Maybe that saying is dated, or maybe we’ve just become immune to the TV ads, like the one where a woman walks by with cinnamon buns for…well, buns. Whatever the outlook on this classic health-determining moniker, none of us can deny that food has a direct impact on our lifestyle and quality of life, as well as our health.
It’s also no secret that food habits are formed early, right when the body also needs the best resources to grow strong. In fact, recent research has determined that the first 5-6 years of life are the most formative for how a child will eat as an adult.
Progress is always possible, so don’t get hung up on perfection when it comes to updating your and your children’s diets. Take it one step at a time. And, above all, think about health as a lifestyle decision (kids respond better to routines, anyway)—not a “challenge.”
So…what are the steps to achieve this?
1: Determine once and for all what healthy eating is
Healthy eating is something for your child and for you, even if your BMI is in great shape and your heart is working like a bee.
Why? Because your child learns by watching you.
So let’s figure out “healthy eating” once and for all. There’s no shortage of opinions, studies, and researches about this. Every year, in fact, scientists discover new facts and give new recommendations about healthy eating and diet for kids and adults.
But sometimes those recommendations contradict themselves, and the whole thing just gets confusing. There’s one essential thing, however, that remains unaltered.
Every doctor and nutritionist agrees that healthy eating means including a balance of very specific macronutrients that help ensure growth, development, keeping energy levels up and helping prevent disease. This includes protein, carbs, and good fats.
Healthy eating, and especially when it comes to a good diet for kids, fundamentally means BALANCED eating.
2: Get your child on the path of healthy eating for today and tomorrow
Your child is growing constantly, and at super speed. Science tells us that we all grow until the age of 25, but those first 10-15 years are hard-core on the human organism.
To grow and develop normally, each living creature requires the basic “building materials” (macronutrients) found in food.
The truth is that there’s no need to actually “teach” a child to eat healthy. What is more important (and better for everyone) is to maintain healthy eating habits for your whole family, and your children can understand them as “normal.” This can have a positive lasting impact on your kids today and tomorrow.
So from this perspective, healthy eating is not a task. Habits take forming, and healthy eating just requires getting over that habit-forming hump.
3: Focus on the meal and on each other
Children are likely to copy your table manners, your likes and dislikes, your willingness to try new foods, etc.. Sometimes, it can even require up to 12 occasions of trying a food before you develop a taste for it, a recent Indiana University Health told us.
Don’t forget that children learn twice as fast from playing. If you can include an element of game in the process, this can create a positive association. This will also keep you focused on each other and on the food for a totality of quality time spent together, something that’s set aside when the tablet is picked up. If you’ve ever enjoyed a social meal before and thought, “this is the height of time spent together,” think about your kids and how electronics may be disrupting that dynamic.
Make mealtime family time
…and you will create a healthy relationship with healthy food.
4: Offer a variety of foods
You never know until you try, right?
So, let your child try! Offering a “variety of foods” doesn’t mean new exotic products every day, it can also mean new combinations of products, new ways of cooking or even new ways of eating them!
For example, you can take a pumpkin and bake it, add it to a salad or make a soup or a vegetable juice. These all are different ways of preparing one healthy product, but for a child, these are also different ways of eating and experiencing it. Your children would use a fork for a salad, a spoon for soup, and straw for juice. Maybe as an adult the wonder has worn off, but for a child, it’s a whole new world with every utensil.
5: Be patient
Let your child choose how much to eat and when to eat, whenever possible. Children are more likely to enjoy food when eating it is their own choice. Just be careful about no foods or drink after teeth are brushed (yes, we had to mention it)!
Some recent studies have argued that it’s even physiologically important to let a child feel hunger, too. When we grow up, we often confuse emotional and physical hunger, and the recent study by McGill University’s Research Ethics Board (REB-II) has highlighted this phenomenon as a major threat to health. This confusion leads to negative consequences including eating disorders and every subsequent consequence caused from weight gain.
6: Let your children serve themselves
Teach your children to take small amounts at first. Let them know they can get more if they are still hungry. If they clean their plate of everything (veggies, too), checking in with them after small servings of seconds can help them train their brain to know when they’re full.
7: Daily food plan
Naturally, the dietary needs of your child will be closely tied to those of the whole family, but in general there are some “average needs” guidelines we recommend. Be sure to ask us or your pediatrician for more specific recommendations that suit your children and family.
And not only is each body different, but children’s appetites vary from day to day!
At any rate, here’s a quick look at what many doctors recommend:
Now, if you’re wondering what counts as “fruit,” sugar-added fruit juices won’t do it. Here are some more of those standard-need recommendations:
½ cup of mashed, sliced or chopped fruit
½ cup of 100% fruit juice
½ medium banana
4-5 large strawberries
And for veggies, we often suggest:
½ cup of mashed, sliced or chopped vegetables
1 cup of raw leafy greens
½ cup of vegetable juice
1 small ear of corn
1 ounce of grains usually comes down to:
1 slice of bread
1 cup ready-to-eat cereal flakes
½ cup cooked rice or pasta
1 tortilla (6’’ across)
1 ounce of protein might include:
1 ounce cooked meat, poultry or seafood
1 tablespoon peanut butter
¼ cup cooked beans or peas (kidney, pinto, lentils)
1 cup of dairy is generally:
½ cup of milk
4 ounces of yogurt
¾ ounce of cheese
1 string cheese
Make sure to contact your doctor and discuss the menu with him when creating or changing a diet for yourself and your child!
Last, but not least!
Healthy eating is not just about calculating portions of different foods or nutrients in specific amounts and times of the day. It’s also the way we perceive food, how we react to it, how much we enjoy it, and how we behave before and after mealtimes together.
Don’t just think hungry, think healthy!