Teaching Healthy Food Choices – The Newest Expert on Nutrition

My toddler, Noah, loves sweets. Today he was stuffing cake into his mouth with both his hands at a birthday party. By naptime, he was acting certifiably insane – shouting that he was hungry and thirsty, had to go potty, wasn’t tired, etc. We finally put him down for his nap and hoped that when he woke up, we’d recognize our sweet-tempered, easygoing kid again.

When he did wake up, he sat up, rubbed his eyes, and repeated that he was hungry and thirsty. I offered him some milk and asked if he wanted some nuts or some fruit. That’s when he dropped the bombshell. “I want broccoli,” said Noah. I deftly scooped my jaw off the floor and said, “Sure, sweetie. I can make you some broccoli.” That evening, when we offered him a treat if he finished his dinner, he said, “I don’t want a treat today.” He then proceeded to demolish the heap of garlic-sautéed kale on his plate.

Of course, I felt prouder than proud – who wouldn’t? What’s more, in the last few months, Noah has demonstrated a growing fondness for mushrooms, spinach, cauliflower, and Chinese cabbage. And with terrifying statistics about obesity and diabetes in the news daily, I think I’m as much relieved as I am proud.

Food Facts

“Only 2 percent of children eat a healthy diet,” says Jennifer Wilkins, a registered dietitian at Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences. At first, Noah was like all his peers when it came to what he succinctly dismissed as “green food.” Veg-o-phobia and diapers seem to go hand in hand. My colleague Melinda Hemmelgarn, a registered dietitian with expertise in childhood obesity prevention, says this is no coincidence. “Kids’ taste buds are different from adults’,” says Hemmelgarn. “Kids have more of them, and strong-flavored vegetables are magnified on little tongues.”

When Noah was a little younger, he insisted he didn’t like vegetables. In fact, for a while, the only vegetable he ate with any gusto was frozen peas until he got sick of them. Having only recently learned to recognize the letters “f” and “b,” he hasn’t read the USDA guidelines. And he is no fonder of okra than he should be. So it isn’t that Noah is an exceptionally right-minded kid when it comes to fresh produce. But when his growing body demands something, it seems it is finally learning to “listen.”

Maybe that’s the point: Kids’ bodies know what they need. So maybe our job as parents is to make good, nutritious food available – and to keep making it available until someday something clicks, and suddenly broccoli is something they want for a snack when they wake up from a nap.

Industry pundits will tell you we have to be free to choose what we eat in the supermarket. Of course, kids will choose sugary cereals and fatty snacks, and why should we deny them? But that argument strikes me as misleading. Kids choose what’s familiar and available, and that’s why U.S. food processors spend $15 billion a year on advertising and direct merchandising, making sure their products become just that: familiar and available.

“It takes just one 30-second commercial to influence a child’s preference for the advertised item,” says Hemmelgarn. “So limit TV viewing and you’ll automatically limit the whining and begging for advertised products.”

Parents don’t have a marketing budget. What we do have is a fierce commitment to see our kids thrive. If we do a better job making good food familiar and available to our kids than the snack companies, our kids will develop healthy lifelong food habits. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow – but in the long run.

I don’t know for certain that anything I did is responsible for Noah’s embrace of leafy greens. But I know that I didn’t do anything to prevent him from discovering them on his own. A few simple lifestyle choices we’ve made in our home may have helped, and these could be adapted to any home.

Family Time in the Kitchen

We set up a table where Noah can draw or build things in the kitchen. He’s interested in watching me cook, and he sometimes wants to know how we make certain dishes he likes.

Noah always has something to say about the smell of what’s cooking on the stove. So if he wants to help make something, I try to find a task he can handle, such as peeling the carrots (with supervision!), tipping the beans, or stirring the batter.

Family Time at the Table

Life can be so hectic that time together is a luxury. Still, we try to eat dinner as a family as often as possible. According to Hemmelgarn, modeling healthful eating “is one critical key to cementing healthful habits that will last a lifetime.”

When we eat together, we talk about what we like and don’t like about it. We talk about the taste and the texture and how each food is different. We also talk about what each of us did during the day. (One of our rituals is that Noah gets to choose whose day we hear about first.)

One-bite Rule

Noah is required to try one bite of each thing we serve. It can be a tiny bit, and if he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t have to have any more. When he was 2, he would sometimes refuse to take his one bite, and we would give him a short time-out during which we would explain (quoting heavily from Green Eggs and Ham) why he always needed to try one bite.

Soon he learned to respond with the barest of prompting: “Because you might … like it!” we would say. Now he accepts the one-bite policy without a fuss. However, when he has a profound and consistent aversion to food, we offer an alternative.

Fruit at Every Meal

Noah eats fruit after every lunch and dinner, whether or not there is dessert. We keep as many different kinds of fruit available as possible, and he chooses whatever he likes. The only rule is that it needs to be different from whatever he chose at the last meal.

Talk about Food

We chat about food often, including when we’re on car trips or while we’re grocery shopping. We talk about what “junk food” is. We talk about how just because something is tasty, it isn’t necessarily good for your body. We talk about why we don’t go to fast-food restaurants. We talk about our favorite dishes and how they are made, and we talk about people’s different eating styles – omnivore, vegetarian, carnivore, vegan, etc.

At times when fast-food restaurants are the only convenient, inexpensive choice (parties, road trips, etc.), it makes sense to explain that once in a while is OK, but that other foods are better for our bodies when we can get them.

Challenge the Advertising

Noah watches videos sometimes but not television. It’s hard to compete with branded snack foods promoted with extreme marketing savvy by beloved cartoon characters. But, of course, for many of us, it’s not practical to remove the television from our lives. In that case, it’s a great opportunity to talk about the ads and why you agree or don’t agree with what they say.

If kids learn to think independently about what they watch, rather than being a captive audience, they’ll be better able to make decisions that stretch far beyond the world of food.

Outside Play Time

We’ve noticed that Noah’s appetite increases sharply after he’s been running around outdoors, so we made a point of choosing a daycare that encourages lots of outdoor activity. We try to make time to play outside with him on the weekends. Amazingly, he always eats a full meal after playing outside.

Visit Local Farm Stands and Farmer’s Markets

One of Noah’s favorite things to do in the fall is to go to “Mr. Clark’s.” Mr. Clark runs a lovely old apple orchard about 20 minutes away from our home. We get to choose from dozens of apple varieties, take home fresh cider and look at the giant, barn-sized apple the Clarks put up some ten years ago for a film crew.

Wilkins says it’s invaluable for kids “to experience a working farm, meet a farmer, gain awareness about diversity in apples and learn more about their natural environment.”

Skip the Middle Aisles

When we take Noah’s food shopping, we start with the fruit and vegetable section, pick up the meats and cheese, stop by the dairy case, and head to the checkout. Except for an occasional foray into “baking needs” for spices and flour, we bypass the middle aisles with their hordes of packaged foods.

“If possible – big if! – shop with a well-fed and rested child,” says Hemmelgarn. “Let them help you go down your list and check things off; and let them choose a new item from the fruit and vegetable aisles instead of the snack aisle.”

Graze on Living Food

Noah likes to be near me in the spring and summer when I work in my vegetable garden. I like to snack in the garden – sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, green beans, carrots, you name it. I don’t usually make a big deal of asking Noah to try things in the garden, but when he sees me eating something I just picked, he inevitably wants to do the same.

Time and space for a garden can be hard to come by. But even growing one small plant – a cherry tomato plant on a rooftop, an herb plant in a kitchen window – makes the point: Food lives and grows. It doesn’t have to be manufactured in a store or factory. It’s something real that you can create yourself and care for, just as it nourishes you. There isn’t a kid in the world who doesn’t consider it a miracle that they can eat something they grew themselves.

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