What is a Healthy Diet and Why Should I Eat One? (Part VIII of ?)

Read Part I: Highlights
Read Part II: Our Journey to Better Eating
Read Part III: We’re not THAT weird
Read Part IV: Recommended Reading and Watching
Read Part V: Recipe Finding
Read Part VI: Grocery Shopping – What We Buy and How Much We Spend
Read Part VII: Supplements, or The Lack Thereof

Part VIII: Getting Your Kids On Board

Written February 9th, 2010

My children eat a lot of vegetables

I just had to put that out there.

During a recent trip to California, SmugMug’s chef made up an awesome healthy spread. I ladled up a bowl of zucchini and spinach soup for me and my daughter (the soup was blended up, served warm, with a pretty mellow flavor and it totally hit the spot).

Mackenzie and I had a little throw down about who should hold the spoon and who should feed whom the soup. I won (as usual… she may catch on soon), but rather than accept my proffered spoonfuls of soup, she started grabbing fresh spinach leaves off my plate, swirling them in the soup, and popping them in her mouth.

A few jaws dropped at the lunch table, and I’ll admit I was a bit surprised myself. But then I looked over and saw her grandpa down the line dunking veggies in his soup and I reflected briefly on our usual meals and it all made sense.

In every way we could think of, we’ve raised her to do exactly what she did at lunch today: matter-of-factly dig into what she was served, with green things being preferred.

I wanted to share a few things we’ve done in raising our children to be healthy eaters:

  1. We try not to underestimate them. Our attitude is that they are perfectly capable of loving healthy food. I’ve learned to love it myself and unlike me, they don’t have a lifetime of brownies and mac&cheese to mess with their palates.
  2. No tricks or bribes. We generally only offer healthy food. They have to try some of each before having seconds of anything, but there’s no slogging through the “healthy stuff” to get to the “good stuff”. We believe everything we give our children is lovely and delicious so our only agenda is to get them to try something they might be hesitant about tasting. Aside from that, we let the food sell itself. Fresh spinach? Glad you like it. We don’t throw a party. Mom and Dad are eating the same thing. It’s just what we eat.
  3. We lead by example. Scott and I cook, prepare, and genuinely enjoy healthy food and when we don’t… we work at it until we do. Our palates have changed (thank goodness!) so I no longer have to worry about being a bad example at the dinner table. If I’m going to eat something indulgent (chocolate, cheese, etc.) I eat a small bit and I will always give them a taste too, but I am just honestly not inclined to give them much unhealthy stuff. I eat it only rarely myself, and they love healthy stuff so why mess with success?
  4. We tell it to them straight. I have no qualms about telling them when I give them a taste of a brownie: “It’s sweet, huh? Unfortunately, brownies aren’t good for our bodies. That’s why we don’t eat them very often.” or “I know, this is a treat. It won’t make me strong like the beans we had for dinner will though, huh?” I learned this from my brother and I love the approach.

Updated March 24th, 2013 to add:

Other things to consider:

– If kids are hungry, they will eat. We have a very hearty breakfast every morning and sometimes my kids will go light on a dinner that’s not their favorite and then tank up on oatmeal the next morning. I’m okay with that!

– We generally don’t snack at all between meals, so my kids come to the table hungry. The exception, though, is they are welcome to come graze in the kitchen when I’m preparing dinner. They’ll often snag carrots, strips of bell pepper, a leaf of romaine to crunch, etc.

– Real life example: If dinner is a new kind of soup that my kids are likely to be hesitant about, and I’m serving it with whole grain bread, I will serve my kids a small bowl of soup and a small amount of bread. When they devour the bread and ask for more, they already know the answer: “If you finish your soup and are still hungry for more bread, I’d be happy to get you more of both.” They eat their soup and the cycle repeats itself. Scott and I follow the same rules ourselves, though of course our bowls of soup are much bigger. 🙂

If you’re starting before they are born:

– Breastfeed your baby! I’m convinced they get used to different flavors from different meals starting on the day they are born.

– Don’t buy baby food. We just feed our children table food so they learn to like it from the beginning and there isn’t a sudden transition from bland to flavorful. They can start around 6 or 7 months with steamed broccoli or spears of sweet potato (anything they can hold in their fist like a “stick” and munch on) and by the time they’ve mastered picking up individual beans you can feed them almost anything on your plate.

– Salads are about the last food my kids learned to like because they needed to have good molars to chew it properly, but they do have greens in smoothies, greens in soups and curries, etc. and two year olds do fine with fresh greens if they are chopped up and mixed in. (Tonight my two year old had chopped romaine mixed with guacamole, salsa, and black beans.)

If you’re starting late in the game:

I haven’t had this experience (except with my husband and myself), but my encouragement would be to stick to your guns and ride out the early bumps in the road.

– Include your kids in the shopping and cooking. Let them help you plan the menu (from a list of healthy dishes you’re willing to make).

– Be frank with them about why the family is changing the way they eat.

– Empathize with the sentiment that “change is hard” but don’t make special exceptions and resist the urge to be a short-order cook. As the parent, you make decisions every day about what is in the best interest of your child and this is a pretty important one.

– Don’t buy junk and your kids will be forced to eat healthily under your roof or go hungry (that won’t last long, promise!) Scott is always surprised at how many parents come into his office and tell him that their child “won’t eat anything but chicken nuggets” or something similar. It’s almost as if the parents are unaware that their three year old is incapable of acquiring said nuggets on his own. Scott always wants to respond, “As a doctor I can tell you that if you stop giving him nuggets, he will start eating something else.” 🙂

I’d love to hear your own tips and experiences in the comments!


About beanland

Scott is a family practice doctor and Anne is a full-time mother and teacher to three beautiful girls and one boy.
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3 Responses to What is a Healthy Diet and Why Should I Eat One? (Part VIII of ?)

  1. Lonica says:

    What do you do for a littlie who doesn’t understand the “finish your soup and you can have more bread?” Amelia totally gets the give and take and will play the game, but Lucy screams her head off and refuses to eat ANYthing but bread. It assaults our ears and ruins our meal. I find myself giving in more often than I’d like… sigh.


    • beanland says:

      Ack, sorry Lonica. I don’t have a solution for you, but I can say she probably does understand by now that she needs to finish her soup first, or at least my kids did at that age. Unfortunately, she definitely understands that screaming is the fast track to getting what she wants. My recommendation (hey, you asked) is to teach her that screaming at dinner time is a fast track to being done with dinner.

      Good luck! That’s a tough one.



  2. Pingback: Healthy Eating Primer – kicking off a new group | Adventures in Beanland

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