How to get kids to eat healthy food

I’m asked this question a lot – how can I get the kids to eat good food? And my answer is always the same – just give it to them. Now I know some of you will dismiss that straight away, saying it’s not as easy as that. But it really can be. I just keep giving it to them consistently and bite my tongue (hard!) if they leave that plate of food barely touched in front of them.

I feel that feeding kids has become complicated when it once wasn’t. I don’t remember having any of these issues in the house when I was a kid. Mum made dinner, we ate it, end of story. I certainly wasn’t given choices! Now though, we are faced with a mind-boggling array of products at the supermarket, that we spend a lot of time and money trying, all in the name of making sure the kids are putting something in their mouths, and often they’d be better off just going without.

 

I see teaching my kids how to feed themselves properly as a fundamental part of being a mother. They learn how and what to eat by what I serve up to them every day, and it is my job to teach them how to eat well, for their own good. If I don’t teach them about food, who will? Knowing how to look after yourself, knowing how to feed and nourish yourself, is critical to life. In the wild, it is often the mother who teaches her young to hunt, to forage, how to survive. In our world, we invest bucket loads of energy and money on teaching our offspring how to read and write, how to play sport, to interact in society, but we don’t often think about what lessons, if any, we’re teaching in regards to food and wellbeing.

Ultimately, it sabotages the kids’ futures because we send them in to the world without the knowledge they need to eat well and look after themselves, which sets them up for illness and unwellness.

I don’t claim to have a perfect system here, far from it. I still struggle with the kids from time to time, but for the most part, they do a great job and are onboard with the whole eating well thing.

So here are the strategies I use:

 

Lead by example

This is the most powerful way, and really, the only way when it comes down to it. You can tell them what to do until you’re blue in the face, but they’re more likely to do as you do, not as you say. So make sure you’re looking after yourself (hello selfish mum!) and the kids will know what healthy eating is.

From the time they started solids, my kids have eaten what we eat. I make one meal, and everyone has it. The kids see their parents eat healthy food, so that’s all they’ve ever known. They’ve never eaten McDonalds, Hungry Jacks or KFC, or any other version of fast food because we don’t eat it. They’ve never had potato chips or soft drink. Monkey see, monkey do.

 

Don’t play caterer

If they’re not eating, I don’t serve them something else to make up for it – they won’t starve! It can be frustrating when you’ve served them up a healthy meal and they won’t budge, but making them up something else won’t help in the long run. It just creates bad habits, and they’re less likely to try anything else you serve in the future because they know you’ll cave and give them something else.

 

Explain, explain

My kids have become experts on all sorts of food, from quinoa to kale. We discuss the food, the ingredients and why we need to eat well. They know that healthy food will make them strong. That their bodies need certain nutrients to function properly, and that’s what food is for. At eight and six, they are well and truly old enough to understand the concept of healthy options and why we choose them.

 

Say NO!

I’m really good at this, a high achiever indeed. The kids rarely ask for junk food because we just don’t really have it unless it’s a party and unavoidable, or a special occasion in which I’ll try and choose the best quality junk I can. I explain why we don’t eat junk food every day, but that if they eat well most of the time then their bodies will be able to process a little bit of junk at a party. They do get treat food every week – in the form of something homemade or sugar-free, or yoghurt, and they’re happy with that.

 

Don’t fight with them over it

You can’t make someone eat, so making a big deal out of it will only make it harder to win them over. Let them have some choice in what they eat, just don’t cave in to their demands. You know best, you’re the mum. Of course, I’m not saying it’s easy to do! I also find if I don’t say anything and we just get into the swing of the dinner table conversation, half the time the child who was turning their nose up just starts eating because they’re distracted by talking.

 

Try before you buy rule

I’ve always tried not to assume the kids won’t eat something. I certainly never say out loud to them that I don’t think they’ll like something, because then they’re sure not to. I keep my misgivings to myself and let them go for it. I have one request of them and that is they must try what’s on their plate, every time it’s there. They don’t have to like it, they don’t have to eat it, they just have to try it.

 

I hope some of these strategies are of use to you. I’ll be chatting more about it on ABC radio tomorrow, on the weekly parenting panel. You can tune in at 91.7, or listen live online by following the link on the right of the page, if you’re so inclined 🙂

Otherwise, I’d love to hear – what do you do at your place? Is your table a dinner table or negotiating table? What works for you and what doesn’t?

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