Recently, I spoke at AD Medilink's Pediatric & Parenting Conference on the topic of using nutrition to build immunity. As a nutritionist, I know exactly what my children have to eat in order to achieve my goal of ZERO SICK DAYS. However, as a mother of two girls with very different personalities and mindsets about food, putting the theory into practice requires a whole other kind of skills.
Of course, growing your own vegetables helps to get children excited about new foods. But who has the space or time for that?
Here are my top strategies for getting your kids to eat what you want based on my experience and research on children's eating behaviours (see References below).
MAKE IT DELICIOUS
Basically - since my kids left toddlerville and accepted that food did not need to be divided into neatly separated piles, my rule is: if I can't get excited about the food on my child's plate, then I can't expect her to.
Broccoli and cauliflower smell grosse. That's just a fact. Stir fry it with garlic and soy sauce. Add crunch by sprinkling some GO RAW pumpkin seeds on it. Gratinee it.
Okra is slimy. My kids love it steamed only if they can dip it in a bit of Braggs aminos that I mix with some lemon juice. They also love it chopped and fried in a spice mix of cumin, coriander, ginger, salt & black pepper.
Salad is no fun. But my kids like to crunch on cucumber, tomato and peppers. I chop these veggies up and douse them in yummy olive oil and a healthy sprinkling of salt.
Here is my tried and tested recipe for a veggie-rich tomato sauce passed down from my grandmother. Four generations have given this recipe the thumbs up on taste so it's definitely worth a go.
HOST A CHILDREN'S LUNCH OR DINNER PARTY
In line with Social Learning Theory, one study used peer modelling to change children’s preference for vegetables (Birch, 1980). The target children were placed at lunch for 4 consecutive days next to other children who preferred a different vegetable to themselves (i.e. peas versus carrots). By the end of the study the children showed a shift in their vegetable preference which persisted at a follow‐up assessment several weeks later.
I've seen this happen with my own kids and not just with food. They overcame their fear of swimming and the monkey bars just by seeing their friends and cousins do it.
EAT WITH YOUR CHILDREN
This is a tough one because of busy schedules but eating with our children is fundamental for role modelling healthy eating behaviours and lowering conflict specific to eating.
According to multiple studies all referenced below, modelling was found to have a clear influence on how children both think and behave around food, with consistent associations found between parent’s and children’s eating behaviours and attitudes.
Moreover, measures of family closeness and connection (of which sharing a meal is one) predict healthier food intake, lower family conflict and lower parent-child conflict specific to eating (Berge 2010).
Rebecca Hopkins and her upcoming workshop on Body Love is premised on the fact that moms who love their bodies raise children who love their bodies. This premise is supported by studies in social behaviour.
It's the same with nutrition and food. Parents who delight in their food raise children who love food too. Sure - there might be exceptions to the rule and your children might take time (years even!) to enjoy spinach. But the love of food is ingrained in their little psyche and with time it'll blossom into curiosity and healthy eating habits.
TARGET SNACK HABITS FIRST
Research shows that healthy foods like vegetables, pasta and protein make up the content of a child’s main meals throughout the day (Brown Ogden 2004). Your child may not eat as much variety as you'd like, but over the course of the week - generally speaking, healthy nutrient components are part of a child’s daily routine at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In contrast, snack foods generally consist of sweets, chocolate, grapes, biscuits, crackers and toast. By cutting out the refined sugars and carbohydrates at snack and swapping them with healthier options like a my Amazing Nerdy Popsicle or apple doughnuts, your child will have benefited from greater nutrition intake than if you had given him a biscuit at snack and fought with him over how much broccoli to have at dinner.
DON'T GIVE UP
There seems to be a sensitive period in the first two to three years of life during which humans acquire a basic knowledge of what foods are safe to eat. In support of this, it is shown that willingness to eat a wide variety of foods is greatest between the ages of one and two years, and then declines to low levels by age four (Cashdan, 1994). So, don't despair - the fact your child spits out spinach may just be our paleolithic way of learning about food safety.
After this period, the data shows that preference is a function of exposure frequency. So, keep on offering it. Keep on including it at meal times for the whole family to eat. One day, your child will go for it.
It took five years for Alexandra to try yellow peppers. Six for her to be okay with salad leaves. She still hasn't tried a blueberry or plain avocado (I have to disguise it in a chocolate avocado pudding).
Am I stressed? I'm a mom. Of course I am stressed!
Do I wish she ate more vegetable variety? Absolutely!
But on the other hand, we have great conversations at dinnertime. She loves her body and hates Coca-Cola and McDonalds.
I'll take that.
Need help transforming your dietary habits?
Cristina Tahoces is a holistic nutritionist and owner of Thrive Nutrition Practice, which focuses on digestive healing, blood sugar regulation & post-natal recovery. Please join her Facebook Group "Thrive Nutrition Practice" for weekly articles, recipes & promotions.
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Berge (2010) A Review of Familial Correlates of Child and Adolescent Obesity: What has the 21st Century Taught us so Far? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2890027/
Birch, L.L. (1980) Effects of peer models’ food choices and eating behaviors on preschoolers’ food preferences. Child Development, 51, 489–496.
Birch, L. L. and Marlin, D. W. (1982) “I Don't Like It; I Never Tried It: Effects of Exposure on 2-year-old Children's Food Preferences”, Appetite 3: 353-360
Rachael Brown, Jane Ogden (2004) Children’s eating attitudes and behaviour: a study of the modelling and control theories of parental influence, Oxford Academic, Health Educ Res 19 (3): 261-271.
Cashdan, E. (1994) “A Sensitive Period for Learning about Food”, Human Nature 5: 279-291.
Hall, A. and Brown, L.B. (1982) A comparison of the attitudes of young anorexia nervosa patients and non patients with those of their mothers. British Journal of Psychology, 56, 39-48.
Steiger, H., Stotland, S., Ghadirian, A.M. and Whitehead, V. (1994) Controlled study of eating concerns and psychopathological traits in relative of eating disorders probands: do familial traits exist? International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18, 107–118