Can I just admit to you right now that I got my kids to eat brussels sprouts by sauteeing them in bacon fat and adding crumbled bacon? And that I still serve them that way as our preferred method, even though we often also cook them on the grill or lightly baked in salt and olive oil? Please don’t think I’m saying my family has arrived, but you know what? We have been transitioning to more healthy nutrition for a while now and it’s working.
So here’s the deal. As Americans, we eat a lot of junk. A ton. Probably 5000 tons. Okay – I looked it up. The average American consumes 72 pounds of sugar per year. 72 pounds! That’s not quite a ton, but still.
I think it’s time to transition our families to more healthy nutrition.
Switching over to healthy eating overnight is difficult. When I got pregnant with our first child, it brought out my mothering instinct to full capacity and making healthy changes was easy. I went cold-turkey on soda, and stayed off of it and all other junk food for three full months, before slowly adding back in one soda per week on date nights. I maintained that for the entire pregnancy while also eating the pregnancy super foods like peanut butter, cottage cheese, and fish.
Fast forward to the twins (babies #5 and 6) and going cold-turkey on soda was never even on my mind. I was losing weight like crazy, unable to keep up on the required calories, and eating all the super foods I could. I dropped my soda consumption, but I did not have the will power for cold-turkey any more. It takes a lot of will power and hard work! Without super motivation like your first pregnancy – there is nothing easy about making positive changes to your nutrition or lifestyle.
Slowly incorporate more healthy foods into your diet. Don’t try cold-turkey on your family. You will end up with an all out rebellion! And don’t hinder your success by forcing foods your family is going to hate. Add in healthy food items a little at a time.
My point is – you can ease into healthy eating carefully so that you have good habits in place and your children do not feel deprived. And I don’t recommend “junk food deprivation” either. It just makes kids crave it and sets them up for a lifetime of craving what they were denied for years.
Instead, let’s take a different approach. Let’s encourage our kids to love vegetables and fruit, eat healthy meats, and love physical activity. Then, allow moderate amounts of junk food as the occasion arises without giving unlimited access to chips, soda, and candy.
Because they have developed an appreciation for the good stuff, as they mature they will be willing and able to practice self-moderation on the bad stuff without feeling like they can’t have anything tasty without sugar or excess salt.
Loving the Vegetables and Fruits
I will be the first to admit – I don’t have it all together in this area. I’m overweight and I still love soda. But I will tell you that I have kids who will choose red peppers over candy, tomatoes as their snack of choice, and eat brussels sprouts. I purposed to introduce more vegetables and fruit into their lives a few years ago and started making positive changes in our nutrition. We’ve come a long way – and you can do this one small step at a time.
Here’s the starting point: a proper amount of vegetables and fruits. The USDA suggests 9 to as many as 13 servings daily. This sounds like a ton, but you can do it and your kids can too.
To get our kids started on vegetables we purchased a vegetarian cookbook, and purposed to try one new vegetable preparation per week. The kids only had to try one bite, and every time they tried a bite of a new food we added a section to their “very hungry caterpillar.” The very hungry caterpillar was easy to create. I wish I had pictures! I just made a bunch of circles in different colors. I made a head and the head went on the wall. Each time one of my kids ate a new food, they got to write down the name of the food and their name and date on a circle and hang it on the wall. We set a goal, and when the caterpillar was deemed complete, we had a special treat together.
Another thing we did was start adding vegetable servings to any food where the vegetables could hide. We added cauliflower to mac-n-cheese, apple puree to brownies, and spinach to spaghetti sauce to name a few. We used the book Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids to Eating Good Foods by Jessica Seinfeld and The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals by for inspiration and recipes.
Here’s something else we did: we started offering a variety of fruits or vegetables as the only snacks available at a certain time of day. “You’re hungry? Great! I have a whole bag of grapes, five plums, two peaches, a bowl of cherry tomatoes and a banana left. Which would you like?”
Finally, I started serving smoothies for breakfast. Cold, delicious smoothies made from Kefir (a healthy dairy product with live cultures like yogurt) fruit (berries, peaches, etc.), some sugar in the form of sorbet or honey, and (don’t tell my kids this) vegetables. I found that as long as I put a lid and straw on the cup, they never knew I was adding red cabbage to our purple smoothies!
Loving Healthy Meats and Proteins
I think the transition to healthier meats is a bit easier because meat is more popular with kids to begin with. The trick is to limit red meat and fatty pork cuts to once a week or so. It is still smart to eat a variety of proteins on a weekly basis. Select fish, skinless poultry, and lean meats as often as possible. A few good choices are bison, venison, and chicken. Eggs are a great way to get protein. Contrary to popular belief, food experts now say that one egg per day is not harmful. Aim for at least one day a week that is meatless. Substitute meat with nuts, peanut butter, beans, peas, and other protein-rich foods.
Salmon is an excellent “non-fishy” fish to start your kids out on. Salmon is full of niacin and omega-3. Omega-3 fatty acids naturally reduce risk for many serious diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Fatty acids are also excellent for your brain, especially in young children. If at all possible, purchase wild salmon to avoid the chemicals found in farm-raised salmon. We introduced our kids to salmon with a strongly-flavored rub and were eventually able to serve them salmon in a simple butter sauce. Not all of our kids like salmon, but they will at least eat it and some of them now consider it a favorite meal.
Cooking a vegetarian meal a few times a week can do wonders for your nutrition. Vegetarian meals give your budget and body a break from heavy meat-centered meals. This is a great chance to introduce your kids to beans. Our older kids first experienced beans in a Mexican preparation using black beans. I think black beans have a better “first bean” texture if you are starting when your kids are older.
Once I started pursuing healthy proteins for my family, I used the book Super Baby Food to introduce my babies to beans in puree form once they were transitioning to real food. I cooked a variety of bean and rice mixtures from that book, and the little ones ate them all. Introducing those little ones to beans in “real food” as they grew was not nearly as difficult as the eldest two. We all particularly love a recipe for chicken, rice, and beans now – it has become one of the foods my children request for birthdays. And while it is not vegetarian, it does a great job of introducing beans to older children in a way they will find palatable so that when you do create all-vegetarian meals they will be ready for it.
Loving Physical Activity
The thing about eating is, your food intake needs to match your energy output. And hungry kids who’ve been getting plenty of physical activity are a lot more likely to take the healthy food you offer instead of holding out for junk. So getting your kids to exercise will help get them to transition to healthy foods and help them burn up the calories in any junk food they might consume.
If you start when your kids are young, they will have a natural tendency to enjoy physical activity. You can get them on playgrounds often, take them outside and kick around the soccer ball, go on family hikes, go swimming daily in the summer, enroll them in classes for martial arts or the sport of their choice, and just get outside for fun games and activities as a family.
Getting your kids on playground equipment that is not crowded with kids is a great way to get them using their muscles. Start young, stay nearby to “spot” for them when they get brave, and visit a variety of playgrounds often. Your kids will find all kinds of ways to be active on a playground. The reason I say “not crowded” is because a crowded playground is much more limiting and confining as to what your kids can do. So it may take some work, but find the playgrounds fewer people know about.
If you say we are going to “exercise” everyone is going to say “no way,” but if you say we are going to a water park, or hiking the Falls, or riding bikes together, chances are good at least some of your kids are going to love that.
Regular exercise such as what kids experience during martial arts training is an excellent physical discipline of the body’s muscles and provides the habit of regular exercise. My boys have greatly benefitted from regular attendance at Tae Kwon Do and are learning self-protection, self-esteem, self-acceptance, and leadership at the same time.
Eat More Healthy Together
So, it’s not going to be easy (temptation is tough), but you can take simple steps to help your family eat more healthy food. Stick together, eat together, and set a good example. In fact, if you really want to transition your family to more healthy eating, you will have to set the example and lead the charge. If you are sneaking candy in the kitchen, you can bet they are not going to have much respect for the changes you are trying to make. Ask me how I know.
If, on the other hand, you are trying new vegetables and seafood right along with them, learning new ways to prepare food to help improve the flavor and entice them, and getting up off the couch to lead them in fun physical activities, the changes are more likely to stick. So be “all in” and help your family transition to eating healthy foods.