Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How to get kids to eat healthy food?

Healthy food can be good. This little boy is
eating grain free and sugar free plantain pancakes.
People often ask me how they could get their kids to eat. Or even better, how could they get them to eat healthy foods instead of only the bread, cheese, crackers and treats they crave. I have been asked to write a blog post about this multiple times but it feels hard. I am no expert in this. How could I tell you what the right answer is? See, I have a selective (or so called "picky", don't like the word) eater in the household too. Sometimes two. But it is getting better. The pickiest eater's favorites now are liver sausage, sushi, mushrooms and fish. He eats vegetables. The other day he said, surprised, as he tasted some fried zucchini: "Mom, this is good!" How did we get here?

I have come to learn that one of my selective eater's reasons for being so selective was due to food sensitivities (yes, food sensitivities can cause kids to be so called picky eaters but that is another post). The other aspect was his parents (my husband and I). We gave him what he wanted to eat. When my selective eater was very young he used to eat only cheese, bread, Annie's bunny crackers and pasta with tomato sauce (and mommy's milk). We gave him those foods as we thought he would otherwise starve and we were scared to say no to him.

Nowadays the selective eater, who is seven years old, eats a rather healthy variety of foods including all kinds of sea food (shrimp, fish, octopus), mushrooms, meats, fruits and berries, liver sausage (we buy the US Wellness Meats one), liver casserole, some selected vegetables like broccoli, carrots, cucumbers and zucchini, cabbage casserole, spinach pancakes, green smoothies, sushi etc. How did we get here?

You drive the bus - but be a gentle bus driver, never force anyone to eat

My advice is - and it sounds simple but don't be fooled - that YOU drive the bus. You (by "you" I mean the parents together, not just one parent, it is easier if there is consensus) decide what kind of foods you want your family to eat (think about it, write it even down and talk about it with the kids - why eating healthy is good and so on, you get the idea). Then serve those foods. Serve them at meal times, sit down together as a family.

Our brunchy breakfast today. I served everyone the same food.
Don't force

Don't force anyone to eat anything but serve only healthy foods, only the foods you have decided are the ones your family should eat. Don't offer a side of crackers or bread in case they won't like the main dish. You could have bowls of carrot sticks, fermented foods, salads and other healthy foods available at the table they can snack on too if you are very concerned that they don't have a choice. Or even better, serve those as appetizers. Then they can fill their stomachs with healthy foods if they don't like the main dish. Or you don't have to serve a casserole where all things are mixed together. You can have different kinds of veggies, meats etc. separately to choose from. But if you know that from a plate like this they will only eat the rice/pasta/other grain or starch filler side and leave all the rest, try leaving that out.

So what if they don't like the main dish? That is ok. Don't get mad, don't make them feel guilty, don't associate bad feelings to the meal time or food. You can in a friendly manner say it is ok, this is our dinner for today and if you are not hungry now, we can save this for later. Put the plate aside and if they ask later for food, you can bring it out again.

If they really really don't like that food, say, they gag when they try to eat it, I never force it. In this case I might offer another healthy choice (other vegetables or meats if I have something available). But if they won't even try the food, I won't offer anything else. I don't think they are necessarily then hungry enough. And this is a shady area because it can happen that you always then have to offer the other alternative food... So I save this strategy only for those occasions I can see clearly that the child clearly just does not like the flavor of the food (spicy or very strong) at all. I don't force myself to eat foods that make me gag or don't like them at all. It can be a sign that you shouldn't eat that food. Maybe you are allergic to it. Although it can happen that you crave the foods you are most allergic to.

Serve the whole family same foods and have the whole family participate in the cooking

Don't make the kids separate meals (or the husband, for heaven's sake, I have heard of this happening too!). This was our biggest mistake in the beginning of our parenting journey. We cooked him separate meals if we ate something we thought wouldn't be "kid's food", too spicy or just unusual ingredients. They need to be exposed to all those foods and see you eat the same food they are being served. You can make less spicy food for a while if you don't want to feed your little one chili. They can eat all veggies, meats, fruits etc. if they are not allergic to them.

With our second child, we offered him same food we ate from the start. I maybe modified our foods so that I felt they were foods I could offer a one year old (we didn't start solids until he was one, he nibbled on some carrots ticks etc. before but he was mostly just breastfed until then - and still is on top of the other foods he eats). He also was gluten and dairy free (and without a few other allergens) from the start as I feel he reacted to those through breast milk - assuming food sensitivities play a role. He eats almost anything. He eats sauerkraut for breakfast. He eats olives, smoked salmon, vegetable soups. He does not like pureed food as we have never given him any but why would he have to eat his foods pureed anyway? I don't even personally like pureed foods except my creamy cauliflower soup, that I have named Happiness.

We started the second child's food journey (in addition to breast milk) with finger foods - he just ate same things we ate but with his fingers - so he has always been able to feed himself too. He doesn't object using a fork and spoon like my firstborn who we fed with a spoon who knows how long. Live and learn.

Have only healthy foods available - have a certain day or two as treat days

Create healthy hunger by avoiding snacks and processed foods. If you need to have snacks, snack only on healthy real foods. And have a special dedicated day or two for treats. You can always refer to those days when they ask for a treat.

I am originally from Finland and I have never been big on as many processed foods as I see kids eat here in the US. By processed foods I mean foods like crackers and cereal that are low in nutrition but have a lot of additives or sugar or empty carbs. I am just not used to them as I didn't have as many available growing up so I had to settle to rutabaga sticks for snacks. No factory made crackers anywhere in sight.  We ate cookies and crackers in parties and on Saturdays my mom made sweet buns we ate after sauna with a glass of milk.

We did eat sometimes crispy bread or bread for snack that was made of whole rye sour dough. With butter. And cheese if you were lucky. I remember that my favorite foods were fried fish or chantarelle mushrooms fried in butter (I picked them from the forest myself and threw them in my mom's hot frying pan with the dirt and pine needles and everything). Or sardines straight from a can (they have the bones in them still so they are full of calcium which I couldn't have cared less of course then!).

The system was that I had mostly healthy foods available. I ate when I was hungry. And on Fridays I had "candy day" when I could buy some candy to eat. I offered a lot of it to others. Like my dad who never refused my Friday candy offerings. On Saturdays I sometimes got a soda after sauna. It was huge deal, we have photos of those occasions when I am drinking my 12 oz soda with a straw from a glass bottle. I didn't have cavities by the way (until teenage when I started eating more sweets and processed foods).

In our family we have a treat day on Wednesdays when we go to farmers market. The treat for my kids is a musubi (seaweed, rice, broiled salmon and sesame seeds) and organic strawberries. They look forward to this all week. On Friday we have a treat day. The treat can be homemade ice cream, paleo ice cream sandwiches or the kids might even get an organic lollipop or small fruit snack bag from Wholefoods (I think they are not fruit snacks but candy!), a piece of chocolate or something like that. Occasionally we have treats on other days too out on a whim. Healthy desserts and treats if we have guests for dinner and so on. It is good not to be too strict, life is supposed to be fun. But I like to have dedicated treat days for one reason: When they beg for treats, I can say: It is not our treat day, just wait until Wednesday or Friday. Or we will make ice cream on Saturday since we will have guests.

Our job is to offer healthy meals. They will eat if they are hungry. 

They are not going to starve themselves and they will be ok if the skip a meal (or even two!) so just relax!

Kids are more likely to eat and try new foods when they are hungry. Don't offer too many snacks. They kill the appetite for the real food at dinner. If you offer snacks, offer healthy foods, vegetables, fruit and healthy proteins, not empty unhealthy calories like sugars and gold fish crackers. If they spoil their appetite with steamed broccoli, carrots, cucumbers or rutabaga... oh well. The other day my kids snacked on fried mushrooms (intended side for dinner) straight from the frying pan and some berries.

If my kids are so hungry they can't wait me to finish the dinner (like really can't wait), I might offer them foods I am cooking with  like cucumbers or carrots I am chopping to the salad, olives, or pieces of meat. Better yet, have them chop the vegetables for you and they can sneak pieces in their mouths! Make it fun. Tell them mock sternly they can chop the vegetables but not eat any of them and they will for sure try to sneak some to eat if you keep playing the game and pretend to get really mad if they "steal" from the salad. (Read the book Playful Parenting for great parenting ideas!)

My first born has had hard time trying new foods, with consistencies of foods, with strong tastes and he would have liked to eat just cheese and bread. It turned out, he was allergic, or became allergic, to all those foods he craved (we did some iGg testing in online labs by collecting stool samples or a finger prick blood test at home, check out the links on my website). He has started trying more foods the more I have been able to track down foods that trigger his body and have removed them from his diet. The biggest shift I saw after putting him on 80-90% paleo diet by removing the last processed foods (I count as processed foods all foods with long ingredient lists): the gluten free pink Trader Joe's bread, store bought coconut milk ice creams and most grains. After that he has tried many new foods. The change is amazing. (This is again another blog post but check out my website for good books and links where to test food sensitivities to get started if you are interested in this route (scroll down to the part "food sensitivities"). Sarah Ballantyne's Paleo Approach (affiliate link) is a good read too about how to do an elimination diet to figure out food sensitivities whether you have an autoimmune disease or not.

Other great posts about this on other blogs:
How do I get my kids to eat (Health Home Happy)


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