Proper nutrition is one of the most important influences on your child’s well-being and affects every aspect of their development. It affects how they feel during the day, how well they can pay attention and how much information they absorb in class, how much energy they have, how well they play at sports and how well they interact with others.
We all want the best for our children and it is important to do what we can to improve our children’s nutrition now. The eating patterns our children have in early childhood will greatly influence, if not determine, their eating habits and overall health later in life. The earlier we encourage healthy choices for our child the better. First let me say it is totally normal that your child is a picky eater and, as a parent, you should not beat yourself up if your child only scarfs down pizza or anything “white” and insidiously refuses to eat any sort of vegetable! According to a study led by Dr. Lucy Cook from the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London and published in the American Journal of clinical nutrition, our children’ eating habits are 78% genetics, and only 22% environmental. Give up the parental guilt. We are all born with a predisposition towards and an aversion against certain foods. These rejections of new and unrecognizable foods at one time served as a protective mechanism in the wild. Dislike of bitter foods, for example, may stem from the fact that most poisons taste bitter. It would be easy to throw up our hands and say “we give up” or feel that we are not empowered to make changes.
There are a few very helpful strategies I recommend to make mealtime easier and more enjoyable and to begin having your children start developing good eating habits. The earlier you start the better!My number one rule is Serve one meal. Stop being a “short order cook” in your own house and make one meal for your children (and ideally you) to sit down and eat together. There is one person very close to me whose youngest daughter only eats a specific type of white pasta with a specific type of margarine and another child who only eats pizza and yet another who subsists on pb&j crackers. Serving each young person in the house with a tailor made meal does not serve anyone’s interests. The child loses because they don’t get proper nutrition and you lose because you are exhausted and worn out and feel like you are always trying to jump through hoops to make everyone happy. Obviously, you won’t serve your child peas if you know he truly hates them but otherwise dinner is dinner.
If the child refuses to eat or is “not hungry”, don’t be upset. Just cover the meal up and save it for later, and if the child becomes “hungry” later, they can be offered this. It goes without saying no dessert until the child eats their dinner. You might have some whining at first but once they know you mean business and are serious, they will take what you are saying seriously as well. Believe me, your child will not starve and you are not depriving your child of anything by being firm with them eating a nutritious meal.Do not let your concerns about eating become a power struggle. If you end up introducing foods in a confrontational way, you and your child will be locked in a power struggle. Mealtime should be about connecting with each other as a family. Serve your dinner then sit down and eat. Do not comment on whether they have or have not eaten something. When mealtime is a pleasant time, children will be more open to eating healthy foods.
Encourage (but don’t force) your children to try new foods. Don’t make threats but do explain how what they put in their bodies will determine how they perform in school and sports, look and feel. And, there is nothing wrong with positive rewards. My next goal with my children is to get them eating salads and we have implemented a star chart in our household with specific rewards for progress. So far, so good.
Try serving a new food over and over again. The key here is to remain calm and emotionally detached from your frustration if they refuse it. Studies have shown that children naturally reject new foods but the more you serve a food the more likely they will eat it. In my house anytime we go a period of time without salmon and I serve it they complain that they don’t like it. When I begin serving it several times a week they begin to love it again! Do not take it personally.
Model behavior for them. This is a very important, often overlooked point. Children will be open to eating what they see their parents and other siblings eat. Eat with your children whenever possible and, if you do eat later, at least sit with them and catch up on their day.
Talk to your children about nutrition. We often think that our children “tune us out” when we tell them that there is vitamin C in orange juice that helps build up our immune system and fight illness, iron in broccoli that makes us strong and good at sports or beta-carotene that strengthens our eyesight. Do not harp but do explain why you make certain food choices and why you cook healthy foods for them. The earlier we begin talking to them about what makes their body strong, their brains smart, and what makes them feel good, the better choices that they will make. Believe me, your children are listening!
No snacks (including drinks) 3 hours before mealtime. This is a tricky because, if your children are like mine and come home from school ravenous and cranky, you need to give them something. But, you don’t want to ruin their dinner. My suggestion is give them something light like an apple, or a cup of yogurt and something to drink right when you pick them up. But, then do not allow any more until dinner. If your children are getting too hungry, you might need to move up dinner hour a bit so they don’t eat too much of a snack then refuse dinner and be hungry at bedtime- not a good pattern. When your kids are ravenous, they will be ready to come to the table and eat, and they will be more likely to eat what is put in front of them.
Have a plate of crudite on the counter for everyone to snack on-carrot sticks, broccoli and other raw vegetables with dip and allow them (and you!) to munch on these while you cook!
Establish mealtime routines. Eat at the same time and the same place everyday. Young bodies will get into a pattern of eating. And, when they are in a good eating pattern, everyone is more likely to come to the table hungry and ready to eat.
Encourage your child to help chose and shop for meals so that they will become invested in them. In our family, we go to Whole Foods on the weekends, and the children always get excited to try all the samples! We always leave with them wanting to choose a new food. A word to the wise, do not take them to a regular grocery store where they will exposed and tempted by a lot of junk food!
Cook with your children. I always cook with the children whenever possible. One of our favorite things to do together is to make pizza. All it takes is whole wheat flour, olive oil, and a little yeast to make a healthy, delicious dough then we top on tomato sauce and lots of cheese. I always bring out any vegetables that we have and the kids make faces on the pizza- broccoli hair, carrot mouths, pea eyes. It is a fun activity and the children always gobble up their creations.
My final rule- everything in moderation. It is ok (and mentally healthy) for them to have french fries or chicken nuggets every now and then, or an ice cream as a treat during the week as long as they know that, while these treats are yummy and delicious and ok to have every once in a while, they are not necessarily healthy.
Recipe for Whole Wheat Pizza
1-2 cups whole wheat flour (can also use rye and/or add flaxseed meal)
1 Tablespoon flaxseed meal
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon flax seed oil
1 Teaspoon yeast
Grated Mozzarella Cheese
To make the dough: Combine flour, meal, olive oil, flaxseed oil and 1 cup of hot water in a mixing bowl and mix together with a spoon then your hand. Add more flour or water as necessary to get a very doughy consistency. Knead the dough directly in the mixing bowl with flour so that the dough does not stick to your hands. My daughter loves kneading and pounding on the dough! Knead into a ball and put aside for an hour and let the dough rise. Since I have two children usually I break it up into two balls so each child will have their own pizza to decorate.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare any vegetables that you will use as a topping.
Have your child roll out or push the dough out with their hands onto the pizza tray. Add tomato sauce and lots of cheese then decorate with vegetables and put it into the oven. Cook for 25 minutes.