Friday, May 13, 2016

Creating Healthy Food Habits Early

When I first decided I wanted to write a post about my kids eating habits, I really just wanted to share happy memories we've recently made involving food. For example, I want to remember the afternoon Nell helped me make dinner and ate nearly half the fresh green beans before I could even start sauteing them (she had some help from her brother and sister, who were coloring at the dinning room table nearby). I also wanted to write about how fun it was to watch three preschool kids gobble up kiwi, strawberry, and banana bowls on a warm spring day.

Or the dried fruit and nut medley they had the next afternoon. 
We also ate donuts for lunch one day. And in one of the below pictures you'll find boxed mac and cheese with (turkey) hot dogs (that I shaped into octopuses per my big kids' request). I'm not here to claim we're perfect, but we do get a lot of things right.

I know it might sound silly to think we make special memories involving food, but that is one of my goals as a parent. I want my kids to have a positive relationship with food. I want them to regularly try new things; I want them to love creating their own dishes, and I want them to fuel their body with healthy food while still enjoying some favorite sweets every now and then.

Ben and I have really put a lot of thought and planning into our food strategy. I've read countless articles and we've had some long debates regarding our dos and don'ts. We regularly receive compliments for how well our kids eat. Yes, these comments are sometimes coded to hide the reality that our kids are not small and have no trouble eating a lot of food when really hungry. But the truth is they are not picky at all and they actually have healthier eating habits than I do. A friend once asked if there was anything my kids won't eat. I told her Reid doesn't like humus, and she confessed she had no idea what that even was (and he does like humus now).

Reid regularly takes bell peppers to school for snack time. Nell informed me she didn't like cabbage one night when I made chow mein, but gobbled it all up the next night when I made Thai wraps. Reid pulled a sauteed red onion out of said wrap and reminded me he doesn't like them, and then proceeded to tilt his head back and dip the whole thing into his mouth. He didn't pick out anymore after that. He ate them all.

These Thai Chicken Wraps are one of my top five favorite meals

Here are several key rules we follow that have helped our kids establish good eating habits. I am not a parenting expert or a food expert. Some people will try these things and reap little reward. Despite all that, I wanted to take some time and jot down things we've done that I hope will serve our kids well their whole lives.

1. Self feeding. The moment my kids show interest(/demand) in feeding themselves I let them go for it. I don't need to battle a baby for a spoon. You want the spoon, you got it. Oh, you're just going to use your hands anyway. That works too. Self feed baby, self feed. 

Substitute that mac for soup, oatmeal, yogurt -- whatever. Self feed baby, self feed.
This also applies to older kids. We do not force our kids to eat any more than they'd like. Not even the healthy stuff. Our kids ask to be excused at the end of each meal (or sometimes the beginning) and we may give them instruction (clear your plate off the table, go wash off your spaghetti face, etc), but we never tell them they have to take another bite.

I think it is important for kids of all ages to be in charge of feeding themselves. They need to listen to their bodies and know when they are satisfied. They need to choose the pace at which they eat (and with Nell that can be painfully slow and I'm working on not rushing her). When we go to restaurants, they pick their own items (the last time we went to Red Robin Nell choose apples and Reid choose a salad as their side dishes, totally skipped the fries) and order them when the waiter looks at them to signal it's their turn. They are in control of what food they eat and how much of it they eat. 

2. Offer a variety. This habit did not come naturally to me. I picked it up for several reasons. One, the (kid) plates we use remind me to offer a main dish and some sides. Two, I do not short order cook, but there are dishes I make that I know my kids might not like, so I need to fill one of the three slots with something I know they will gobble up. Three, I want my kids to like fruits and veggies more than I do, so I need to include one (or two) with each meal. So far I have succeed with this goal; my kids eat way more fruits and veggies than I do.

My plate did not have the fruit pictured above, but it did have chocolate chips in the yogurt/peanut butter fruit dip.
3. Limit snacking. This rule has not come naturally to me either. I learned to graze during my young adult years, and it's something I've had to work on now that I'm home all day with my kids. After reading Bringing Up Bebe I adopted a new catchphrase, "It is okay to be hungry." I decided we'd have four regular eating times. We eat breakfast at 7, lunch at 10:45, light snack at 2:30, and dinner at 5:30. If they tell me they are hungry half an hour before any of those times I remind them that it is okay to be hungry; we have to wait. If their hunger strikes when we still have more than an hour before the next scheduled eating, they are told they can eat a carrot.

They eat a lot of carrots, and I'm okay with that. Sometimes, I'll let them share an apple (which they prefer to carrots). But they know there is absolutely no grazing between designated eating times. If they are truly as hungry as they claim (and sometimes they appear to be), they can eat a carrot.

4. Make food a hands on learning experience. I love cooking with my kids. But that's not for everyone and there are plenty of other ways to help kids learn about food hands on. They can help with the grocery shopping (we do this occasionally, but my grocery store offers free babysitting so we usually go with that). Growing our own food is another way we help our kids learn about food. They've watched me stress over our fruit trees and they love helping Ben in our vegetable garden. I've decided these two things aren't any cheaper than just buying our own produce, but the family time we spend together and the things my kids are learning about food make it worth it.

When kids help in the kitchen, garden, or at the grocery store they learn about food and are exposed to the variety of ingredients that are out there. Hands on experience with food encourages a more curious and adventurous palate.

(as I finished that last line my 3.5 year-old daughter turned to me and, with a smile, said "Mommy, I just found a chocolate chip in my butt, but when I tasted it, it was gross." So ... maybe I've encouraged a little too much curiosity and adventure. Kids are so gross).

5. You've gotta try new foods. If you've ever seen Daniel Tiger you can sing along with me now, "you've gotta try new foods cause they might taste go-od. So good, good." We sing this often, even when we give our kids something they've tried before and didn't like. As I said in #1, we don't make our kids eat anything. They don't actually *have to try new foods* but when they see something unfamiliar (or that they remember not liking) we sing this little song and then put the utensil in their hands and let them take control.

We talk about strange foods we have eaten. They know I ate an octopus once. I think they're disappointed I turned down fried worms and curried snake -- but they still know I was offered these dishes. They know people in different cultures eat a different variety of food. Reid has decided he loves Chinese food and it doesn't matter what I make, if I tell him it is Chinese (and I don't lie about it) he'll eat it. Mexican-American food is their least favorite, but Ben loves it so they are still offered it pretty regularly.

We've had fish (tilapia) tacos so often my kids have finally started eating them.
They loved these shrimp tacos (in butter lettuce) the very first time we had them.
On this night Nell told me she didn't like guac, but when she tried our fresh side dish she quickly changed her mind. 

1 comment:

Grandpa B said...

Fun food. I'm hungry Mom...

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