I'm always excited to teach my kids something new, but helping them learn what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat feels daunting. Add to that the desire to raise adventurous eaters without food hangups—it all seems pretty overwhelming. I've read a few books, but I've struggled to find a way of talking about food with my kids that made sense. So, I reached out to a few experts to see what they had to say about the subject.
Start With the Basics
Kids make choices based on their taste preferences, what's available and what's familiar, says registered dietitian Natalia Stasenko of Feeding Bytes. In other words, it does start with what we model for them. If we eat a well-balanced diet and offer nutritious foods, then that is what they'll go for over time.
Stasenko breaks down that notion into a simple, straightforward statement that kids can understand: "We need to eat different foods to stay healthy." She adds that there's no point in demonizing sweets or treats because it doesn't make sense to our little ones. They will understand the need to change it up to stay healthy.
My kids know that caffeine and salty foods help mommy's headaches in our house, but I don't drink/eat much of either. They've seen my mom need a few pieces of candy when her blood sugar is low, but we all eat sweets in moderation. Stasenko points out that it doesn't help to label foods as good or bad because our kids could start to feel guilty over the things they enjoy.
Her specific example is super helpful. For instance, your child may ask, "Can I have some candy from the party bag?" She recommends you skip the response where candy is the enemy. Instead, try validating their feelings and explain that you'll all have some candy with dinner later that day or at another upcoming meal.
Be Thoughtful about Your Words
It is also important to think about what our kids hear versus what we say. For example, Jennifer Anderson, the mom and registered dietitian behind the popular Instagram account Kids Eat in Color, admits it makes sense to bribe our kids to eat their vegetables by offering fruit or dessert. But, as we say, "you have to eat this before you eat that," our kids are learning to like the wrong thing. They think they have to eat one gross bite to get a yummy one. But really, it's all just different types of food.
To help them better appreciate food diversity, Anderson thoughtfully describes food by color and nutritional benefit. For instance, she points out that red foods are good for your heart, and blue and purple ones make your brain stronger. All of a sudden, the food they see makes sense in terms they can understand. We've tried this method at home, and it makes a big difference during our food-related discussions. For example, carrots aren't yucky anymore because they help you see better at night!
So what about those foot-in-mouth moments when we don't have an answer to an uncomfortable food question? I wanted a real and honest answer for when my youngest asked why someone is so big. Anderson's response knocks it out of the park: "Fat is how our body stores energy. Each person's body stores energy differently; that's why people come in all shapes and sizes." Making it about simple facts takes away the mystery and emotional elements.
Pay Attention to Your Behavior
- Offering a mix of your child's favorites as well as some new foods at meals.
- Gently encouraging your child to try new foods, but never pressuring them.
- Keeping in mind that everyone has foods that they do and don't like.
- If your child refuses what's on the table, don't be a short-order cook. Offer a simple alternative.
- Using healthy snacks to fill in nutrient gaps throughout the day.
- Being an example.
So, if our behavior matters, too, then we need to talk kindly to ourselves as well. We encourage our kids every day. We tell them they are enough and just right the way they are. But, they're going to model what we do day-to-day. So, avoid those negative comments about stubborn weight and love yourself the way you love your little ones.