Any parent who’s tried to sneak a little steamed spinach or sautéed zucchini under the discriminating noses of their children understands that upgrading the family diet from horrific to healthy can be challenging. Kids seem almost preprogrammed by mass marketing to crave pizza and chicken strips, not broccoli and Swiss chard. And, even if you could agree on a more wholesome menu, who has the time to plan and prepare something new and exotic?
But researchers, therapists – and a good number of parents – suggest that it’s not as tough as you might think. With the right strategies, you can help your family eat healthier without much struggle. You might even (gasp!) have some fun along the way.
Here are some of the most common challenges parents face in the healthy diet campaign and some helpful ideas to overcome them.
Challenge 1: When I make healthy food, my family won’t eat it.
When I hear complaints from my two daughters about a healthy dish I prepare, my gut response is to get bossy: Eat it because it’s good for you, because I cooked it … and because I say so! That’s normal, but not necessarily effective, says therapist Donna Fish, MS, LCSW, author of Take the Fight Out of Food: How to Prevent and Solve Your Child’s Eating Problems (Atria, 2005). A more valuable (and more satisfying) approach involves helping our kids make healthy choices on their own.
By educating our kids to make informed food-selection decisions and by involving them in the food-selection and food-prep process (more on that in a moment), we can empower them to eat better now, and for a lifetime.
Start by making sure your kids know where various foods come from; why most whole, natural foods help build strong bodies; and why most heavily processed foods are best avoided. Bring your kids to the market or food co-op. Teach them to read labels (see Nutrients, page 40). Help them understand which whole-food ingredients (if any) form the basis of their favorite foods, and what those ingredients look like in raw form. Point out that the top five ingredients in many “kids’ foods” (processed flours and sugars, cheap fats, added flavors and colors) make it harder for kids to grow up strong and healthy.
Then brainstorm about some healthy dishes that incorporate the ingredients they like best. Let them pick out some cookbooks at the library, involve them in Web searching for recipes that use favorite whole-food ingredients. Teach them about the origins and healing powers of various fruits and vegetables. Work together on adapting favorite-food recipes to make them healthier.
Even young children can learn to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods. To help them grasp why a favorite junk food is discouraged, suggests Fish (a mom of three), explain something like the following: “This may make your tastebuds and tummy happy right now, but it won’t provide good fuel to help your body do your favorite things.”
Or you can recall an experience they’ve had with an unhealthy food: “Remember when you had only candy and cake at that party and came home so cranky and tired?” You can add more specific nutrition information as a child gets older, explaining how certain ingredients affect their bodies and minds, for better or for worse.
You can make everyone’s food life easier by removing the most troublesome temptations at their source. In fact, that’s probably a good first line of defense in most households, says David Ludwig, MD, PhD, author of Ending the Food Fight (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). Ludwig suggests doing a “clean sweep” of unhealthy foods in your household and replacing them with vibrant, tasty (preferably organic) whole-food alternatives. This could require an afternoon to accomplish, and it may take some time for your family to get used to (so you may want to clean out the kitchen in phases), but it will save you trouble, confusion and temptation down the road, and it will make healthy cooking that much easier.
Plus, Ludwig adds, “Filling your home with real food creates a feeling of abundance.” A bountiful array of fresh, good-tasting, visually appealing foods can help counteract distress over the loss of addictive snacks.
Challenge 2: We’re way too busy to cook real food.
The busier you are, the more incentive you have to make sure your family doesn’t fall prey to the chronic health, mood and energy problems that result from poor nutrition.
Besides, says Ludwig: “Serving up healthy foods can be a whole lot easier and quicker than you think.” He knows all about the pressures busy families face: For 12 years, he’s led the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children’s Hospital Boston. Ludwig hears from thousands of parents worried that time pressures will prevent them from preparing whole foods. And to most, he offers the same three keys to success: 1) plan your menus, 2) invite your kids to help prepare food, and 3) make healthy snacks as convenient as possible.
Menu planning makes shopping and cooking more efficient, and it makes integrating whole foods much easier. “When I do a weekly menu plan, I only need to go to the grocery store once a week,” says Catharine Slover, a mom of three in Dripping Springs, Texas. Stocking the shelves with the week’s needs cuts down on convenience-food impulse buys. Plus, when there’s always a ready answer to “What’s for dinner?” it reduces juvenile lobbying for a different dish.
Smart menu planning can also shrink your prep time for cooking whole grains and beans. “I’ll cook a larger batch of brown rice, which will take about 40 minutes, but then I’ll have it ready to use for a few other meals during the rest of the week,” says Ludwig.
Enlist your kids in the effort. Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), a University of Minnesota survey of nearly 5,000 adolescents, found that middle school and high school students who helped shop and cook were much more likely to eat fruits and vegetables (and less likely to opt for soda and sugary snacks).
Enlist older kids to wash and cut up fruits and veggies that can be ready to eat when the “I’m starving!” chorus begins. Plus, prechopped veggies make instant additions to stir-fries and salads for lunch or dinner, and precut fruit becomes a quick and easy fold-in with yogurt and nuts for dessert. Younger kids can make snack-packs of toasted nuts, seeds, and dried or frozen fruit.
Cooking is an important life skill, and one that’s easily learned. Simple, healthy meals needn’t be laborious. So pick out a few family-friendly cookbooks. With a small investment of time and focus, you can create healthy meals quickly and conveniently.
Challenge 3: I can’t compete against Madison Avenue messaging.
No matter how thoroughly you educate your children about the value of a healthy diet, that message is constantly being undermined by the thousands of junk-food ads kids see on TV. Children between the ages of 2 and 7 view an average of 4,400 ads annually – one-third of them for foods such as candy, snacks, cereal and fast food – while 8- to 12-year-olds see 7,600 food ads, according to a March 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation study.
And those viewing patterns can be hazardous to kids’ health: A 2006 University of Michigan study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine indicated that 3-year-olds who watched more than two hours of television a day were three times as likely to be overweight than those who watched less frequently.
But there are ways to counteract this media juggernaut. Amy Jussel – the mother of an 11-year-old girl, and a marketer herself – founded Shaping Youth, an organization aimed at taming harmful media messages. She also began volunteering at her daughter’s San Francisco Bay–area school to teach kids how to resist junk food come-ons.
“The kids really love the ‘gross-out’ games,” says Jussel of her “reality show” approach. She has students dissect the contents of a Lunchables-type package to identify nasty saturated fats and food dye, and spoon out the 10 teaspoons of sugar in a typical can of soda. She also coaches them on reading nutrition labels and analyzing deceptive product claims. Then she highlights the good stuff using blindfold taste-tests and games that get kids to try new “mystery foods” such as jicama and mango.
You don’t have to be a marketing insider to make use of Jussel’s tactics. Just remember to keep things fun and to engage your children’s natural curiosity. Kids are generally quick to see through silly selling schemes once you explain how the cartoon-character promos and “cool kids drink sugar syrup” messages are designed to make them want things they wouldn’t otherwise. Play “spot the hook” with them when they’re young and you’ll help inoculate them against a lifetime of unhealthy hype.
Challenge 4: My kids crave junk food – and sometimes so do I!
Contrary to popular belief, kids don’t come into this world destined to eat only mac ‘n’ cheese and chicken strips. “Children aren’t born craving junk food,” says Ludwig. “They’re brainwashed to crave it by the marketers. They can learn to love other foods just as well,” he says, noting that children in many other cultures eat the same food as the adults around them – diverse foods that Americans would consider a hard sell for their kids.
The problem is, the more junk foods kids eat and are exposed to, the more they want. And the same goes for adults. That’s why creating an enjoyable healthy-food experience is so essential.
A good way to start resetting kids’ taste buds is to lead by example – wherever you are on the healthy-eating spectrum. “Parents don’t have to have the best eating habits before beginning changes,” says therapist Fish. “In fact, your children will appreciate your honesty in acknowledging how hard it is to cut back on certain unhealthy foods you’ve relied on, because they face that, too. But what’s more important is that they see you express your enjoyment of at least some of the healthy foods you’re trying.”
Research confirms that taste preferences – for children and adults – can and do change over time. Writing in Why We Eat What We Eat: The Psychology of Eating (American Psychological Association, 2001), food psychologist Elizabeth D. Capaldi, PhD, describes three ways in which those preferences change: with repeat exposure to a new taste; by pairing a new taste with an old, favorite taste; and by sneaking a new nutrient in with a familiar, preferred food.
Younger children may need at least 10 exposures to a new food before they’ll accept it, according to some studies. When in doubt, be patient, persistent and creative. Try pairing tactics: Make a sandwich with one whole-grain slice of bread, for example, or sneak some grated veggies into a favorite soup or sauce. Add almond slivers to a favorite salad, or surprise kids with kiwi in their usual fruit mix of apples, bananas and strawberries.
You can also take a food your child purportedly hates (let’s say, onion) and mask it in a combination he or she will find nearly irresistible (try guacamole, a healthy and quick-to-prepare dip for veggies that calls for only mashed avocados, garlic, onion, tomato, cilantro and a dash of lime juice). Many times kids will be won over by a delicious flavor combo and not even notice the presence of that “much-hated” food.
Challenge 5: I can’t control what my family eats away from home.
True enough. But you can equip your kids with food-choice skills and values they will use all their lives. And if they experiment a little, it’s not the end of the world. What they eat and learn at home will always help set the stage for their food choices elsewhere. “Keep the focus on the fact that they are in charge of their bodies all the time, even when they’re away from you,” says Fish.
Find ways to illustrate the fact that there’s a direct link between healthy food and fueling the body, she advises. “A child is going to be more motivated to make good choices when he really gets that connection.” Kids want to be the best they can be at the activities they are passionate about – from soccer and dance to playing hide-and-seek in the yard and reading a good book (healthy food fuels brain cells, too!).
Also consider that kids receive positive health messages from many outside sources – enlightened peers, teachers and other adults. Books and movies can have a huge impact, particularly promoting food values. Reading Eric Schlosser’s Chew On This (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) has changed many a child’s attitude about the appeal of junk foods. And seeing films like the documentary Super Size Me can have a similarly enlightening effect. I know this from personal experience. When our younger daughter was little, she’d beg to go to McDonald’s, despite our opposition. Then she watched Super Size Me and vowed never to go to McDonald’s again, whether we were around or not.
Peer-to-peer organizations can also play a key role. The Austin, Texas–based Sustainable Food Center, for instance, recruits kids to educate other kids at schools and community events. When kids have the opportunity to learn from other kids, it’s more appealing – and more fun!
Whatever the first step in your family’s food transformation, remember that you’re making a difference in your child’s health. And by infusing each improvement with fun and family togetherness, you’ll also make the process quicker and easier. Best of all, you’ll know that your children are building healthy patterns that will grow as they do.