Ask any parent and they'll tell you that getting their children to eat healthy is quite a challenge. I'm not a parent so I haven't personally dealt with this, but I see unhealthy children in my classroom on a daily basis. They're eating Pop Tarts, white chocolate Kit-Kats, Doritos, flaming hot Cheetos, and all sorts of other 'Frankenfoods' that keep them from achieving optimal health. But why? Why have they grown to accept this garbage as food? To be honest, there are a lot of factors at play here. But one main one is that they have been raised on unhealthy food since being weaned off of breast milk...if they were even breast-fed in the first place (a topic for another post).
The number one reason I believe children are not eating healthy is because junk food is everywhere. The school where I work has a breakfast foods vending machine full of Pop Tarts and granola bars (no doubt full of genetically modified ingredients). The other vending machines are filled with typical vending machine stuff - chips, fruit snacks, candy bars, soda and energy drinks. It's sad, really. These kids aren't given many options. Walk into any big box grocery store and you'll be greeted with junk, junk, and more junk. Go grocery shopping with your kids and they'll be "ooohing and ahhhing" over all the colorful boxes of stuff that will make them unhealthy. But it has a cute cartoon toucan on the box! How can that be bad? Ugh! You get the idea...
There are quite a few things you can do to get your children to eat better in a world where cheese pizza is now considered a source of "healthy whole grains and vegetables" (directly quoted from a school lunch menu - gross!).
Ditch the Junk
Like I said, junk food is everywhere. If you don't buy it, your children won't eat as much of it. Focus on healthy purchases and introduce your children to good foods. This is best when started at a younger age. However, it's never too late to change your child's eating habits. If they fill up on good food, they'll have less room for junk food. This is a process known as "crowding out". As a teacher, I know this is a bit harder to do with school-aged children. This is why I recommend packing a lunch full of nutrient-dense foods for your children. Yes, it may take up more of your time. However, I feel like it's your job as a parent to make sure your child is eating healthy things as much as possible.
Be the Example
Your children watch nearly every move you make. You're their first role model and you need to set an example for them. If they see you plowing through a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, what message do you think that sends them? Eat your damn vegetables and let your children see you eating (and enjoying) them.
Don't Label Food as 'Good' or 'Bad'
I'm rebellious and stubborn. If my parents said a food was 'bad' it made me want it more. I remember wanting Lucky Charms so bad when I was six years old. The only cereal I was allowed to eat was regular Cheerios. Boring! So I cried and begged and pleaded with my mom to buy me Lucky Charms. She caved in and bought a box. And then from that point on, I was the kid that dumped tablespoons of white sugar on top of my boring Cheerios. And I definitely did not want to eat 'good' broccoli unless it was smothered with a ton of canned cheese sauce.
My colleague Jordan recently shared with me what she does with her son to get him to make healthier food choices. She doesn't dare call a food 'good' or 'bad'. Instead she tells her son that a food is either a 'grow' food or a 'treat' food. 'Grow' foods help kids grow up to be big, healthy and strong adults. What superhero-loving kid is going to turn up their nose at a food that helps them do that? 'Treat' foods are for special occasions. They don't really help kids grow up healthier or stronger, but they are okay to consume every once in a while (think: birthday cake).
Don't Use Food as a Reward
Your child is not a dog. He or she does not need a treat when he or she does something good. When I was in grade school and got good grades on my report card, my mom would take me out for ice cream. Did I need to be bribed with ice cream to do well in school? At first, no. But then it became a reward so I went with it. Now I find that I reward myself sometimes with food if I do something good. For example, I worked out five days in one week. Time for an entire chocolate bar in one sitting! It's a hard cycle to break.
I love that one of my student's moms is going to reward her with something of interest if she gets good grades. The reward has nothing to do with food. So, Akio, if you're reading this, do well in school this semester so that you can have your cosplay photoshoot!
Have Family Dinners
Call me old-fashioned, but I think it's important for everyone in the family to sit down to eat together at the dinner table as much as possible. Research has shown that children who sit down with their families at the dinner table have better overall nutrition and are able to make healthier choices overall. If this isn't a tradition in your household, make it one! You'll quickly see benefits for both your children and yourself.
Shop Wisely with Kids
I know it may be inconvenient, but try to leave your kids at home if you need to go grocery shopping in a big box store with aisles upon aisles of junk. I was in a big box grocery store the other day (don't judge - Winco has the cheapest avocados) and saw a child wearing her mother down so that she could get some sort of boxed junk food. It reminded me of how I used to do that with my mom - hence how I got her to buy me a box of Lucky Charms 30 years ago. Eventually her mom gave in and put the box in her cart, which immediately stopped her child's tantrum. Leaving her kid at home would have prevented the tantrum in the first place.
On the other hand, if you're shopping at a local farmers market, I think it's important to bring your children with you. Children can meet local farmers and see where their food comes from. Allowing them to pick out some fruits and vegetables at the farmers market empowers them and they are more likely to eat those fruits and vegetables as well.
These are just a few ideas to get your children to eat healthy. Mothers, chime in and let me know some of your solutions in the comments below. I'd love to hear how you do it. Because, like I said, I don't know from personal experience, but I've heard that the struggle is real.