I was a “picky eater” as a child. There was a limited list of foods that the two to 13 year old me found acceptable. My poor mother.
Looking back, I grew up on a pretty conservative budget. My parents didn’t buy what they couldn’t afford. Groceries involved a lot of canned food as well as inexpensive, processed things that didn’t quickly spoil (think canned soups, frozen dinners and lots of noodles). Stuff that is not exactly at the top of my list now. My parents gave us the best with what they had and we never went hungry! But I can’t help wondering if I had been given different choices growing up, if my eating habits would have looked different.
Going from being an extremely picky eater myself, to raising two very adventurous eaters, has people asking me regularly about “what I did to make my kids such good eaters”. For awhile I would reply, “Nothing. They eat what we eat.” Which I’m sure made me sound like an ass…but its true. They do eat well and I don’t make more than one meal when we sit down to eat. Then I really thought about what it IS that we’ve done and I realize that although I never gave it much thought, there are things that we did that may have made a difference. I’ll do my best to break down what it is that we do. My tips, if you will, to create healthy eaters with healthy habits.
I’ll be the first to say, some of it is probably luck of the draw. I can only tell you about my kids as I haven’t tried raising anyone else’s.
5 Tips to Create Healthy Eaters with Healthy Habits
We are definitely not perfect, but early on with my children, I was MUCH more strict than I am now. I worked REALLY hard to create what I hope are life long habits of trying lots of different colors and textures and flavors. When they were introduced to solids (they were both breast fed and when I needed to supplement, we used goats milk) it was always vegetables first, then fruits and eventually meats and cheeses.
1. Start early! And NOT with the sweet stuff.
If you gave me the choice between an apple and broccoli, I’d pick the apple every time. Not because I don’t like broccoli, but I just like the apple better. I think its safe to say that most of us feel this way. Why would we expect anything different from our kids?
Crackers, granola bars, and juice were offered sparingly and were often homemade or as clean a version as I could buy from the store. Things like gummies only happened if they were homemade (get the recipe I use here), and candy didn’t happen. They simply didn’t know they even existed. My theory was, if they’ve never had it, they can’t want it.
The amount of crap on the shelves marketed to infants and toddlers is staggering. And the ingredients can be atrocious. Be an informed consumer or make your own versions when you can.
2. Follow the 80/20 rule. 80% healthy, clean eating and 20% living a little.
Eating super clean was easier to do when they were primarily home with me. As they’ve grown, I’ve had to adapt. When they are attending daycare, at the grandparents, birthday parties, and school, they are exposed to and offered things that I wouldn’t necessarily choose.
I have my things I like to indulge in too. I am not perfect. You won’t see me give up Bloody Mary’s or cheesecake for the rest of my life. But I also can’t have them every day. Everything in moderation.
I’ve chosen to use the times that I have little control over as learning opportunities. We talk about the kids’ day, what they did, and when appropriate, what they ate. We talk about what different foods do for our bodies. About how different foods make us feel.
My 6 year old loves to indulge in “treats” like other kids. What we (and other people seem to) notice is the self control he has. He’ll have 1 cookie…maybe 2. He has learned an awareness of his body and when enough is enough. My two year old loves her “treats” as well but often only eats about half of whatever is given to her. It’s amazing how their little bodies know how to regulate themselves.
Let’s be real…I still haven’t learned that kind of self control! Which is why I’m so set on my next tip.
3. You don’t have to clean your plate if you’re not hungry, but you do have to clean your plate before you have an additional snack or dessert.
I NEVER want to teach my kids that they have to eat something just because its in front of them! I know too many people (myself included) who chronically over eat that were raised this way. When my kids say that they are full, they are allowed to leave the table. If their plate is empty, they put it in the sink and go play. If it still has food on it, we save it for later as they’ll usually tell us they are hungry and want a snack. They can have a snack once they’ve finished the food left over from dinner. (And yes, they are given appropriate amounts per their ages.)
This has eliminated the constant grazing and snacking. The same goes for dessert. If you’re not hungry enough to finish your dinner, that’s fine, but then you’re not hungry enough to eat dessert. I see too many parents that give in to this one. They will test you and push you until they get their way. Unless you don’t let them.
The exception to this is…
4. They have to try it. Just one bite. Then leave it alone until next time.
Kids will look at something and decide they don’t like it. They have to at least try it. I know my son doesn’t like sweet potatoes, but every time we make them we ask him to try one bite. There are several foods that he didn’t think he liked until he took that bite. Now he eats them just fine. Once they’ve taken a bite or two and still say they don’t like it, then we’ll take it off their plate. I thank them for trying it and we move on. Because they know they won’t be forced to eat it all they’ll take the bite even when its something new and they are unsure.
I make them try things repeatedly because your taste buds evolve over time. I love foods now that I hated as a kid. But once I refused them as a kid, I wasn’t always offered them again. I get where my mom was coming from! There are SO many battles to pick from when it comes to kids and you can’t fight every one of them every day. You’ll lose your damned mind. Pick your battles ladies, but if getting healthy foods in is a struggle, stick with this one.
5. Offer a variety of choices.
My 2 year old will annihilate steamed broccoli, sliced red peppers and homemade sweet potato fries. Asparagus and lettuce salads are a battle. My 6 year old inhales grilled asparagus, cucumbers, celery and mashed cauliflower. Sweet potatoes and spaghetti squash are a challenge. I don’t expect that they are going to love everything. I don’t. My husband doesn’t.
If I am making something that I know one of my kids doesn’t care for, I’ll make sure to also prepare something that they do. If we are grilling steaks and asparagus, I will cut up some peppers and carrots as well so my 2 year has something to eat after she tries her asparagus. Last night she ate 3 pieces!
6. Remember that behavior is learned.
They are watching you. Constantly. Everything you do. Like when they drop their first curse word and you can’t be pissed because you know who they got it from! Go ahead. Blame your significant other, ladies, but if you’re on this page (my people) I know it was really YOU.
What do your eating habits look like? Are you always snacking? Grazing? Do you make healthy choices? Are you doing the same things that your kids are doing that drives you crazy? Be honest. Evaluate and then adjust and move on.