Encouraging a healthy relationship between a child and the food they eat is critical for developing healthy eating habits. I have discussed the first step in my recent post ‘Family Meals Matter’ – I hope you are now managing, at least, a few meals together as a family? There is no one answer, rather several to resolving food fussiness and developing healthy food habits in children. I plan to chip away with many tips and considerations for you over the coming months. So bear with me, keep posting comments and questions and we’ll have your fuss pots turned around in no time!
Participation improves eating habits
The next critical part of developing an interest in food is having your children participate in meal preparation and encouraging an understanding of the origins of food. Keep reading, it is not as complicated as it sounds! Many children have lost touch with ‘real’ food; like the children of a fast food-loving friend of mine (you know who you are!), who believe that “food only comes out of a packet or window.”
So resurrecting a ’food culture’ in your household is the second important foundation for developing healthy eating patterns in your children. This firstly involves talking to your children about food, where it is from and why it is so wonderful. Past generations of children watched or helped parents or other members of their community gather food and they participated in its preparation. Kids back then were not fussy. I can even remember as a child at my Nan’s house, gathering eggs and scrubbing the dirt from the potatoes and carrots I’d just pulled.
Involving children in food acquisition and meal preparation is not difficult or time-consuming at all. It should become an extension of what you’re doing anyway and the positive effects can be quite dramatic. This has been demonstrated in programs such as the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation and Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. In these programs, children are involved in growing and cooking foods, which plants the seed for positive eating habits. The outcome of these sorts of programs has been ‘effective in changing children’s behaviour and response to food in a positive way,’ (Stephanie Alexander). Academic evaluation of the Kitchen Garden Foundation found ‘strong evidence of increased child willingness to try new foods.’
Don’t let your children be part of ‘a lost generation who cannot cook, has no idea where their food comes from or how to prepare a balanced meal,’ (Jamie Oliver).
By simply incorporating a knowledge and passion for food into their lives, you can profoundly influence a child’s interest and desire for whole foods. This lays the foundation for a lifetime of health and enjoyment of simple whole foods. What an amazing gift.
Simple tips for building healthy food relationships
Your children do not need to be enrolled in one of these programs to develop an appreciation of food. There are so many ways YOU can help them to do so. Remember to always make sure children’s involvement with food is fun, not a chore. You want to create a positive relationship with each other and food. It may be that they only help for a few minutes, but any involvement is a step towards a lifelong appreciation of food.
Shopping for food
- Kids love to help choose or even bag fruits and vegetables at the supermarket or farmers market. You need to let them know that they are going to eat fruit and vegetables each day, then let them choose the ones that they want to eat. They pick it, they eat it. Kids just love to feel a little in control.
- The farmers market is a wonderful place to encourage kids to taste a variety of produce and participate in choosing what seasonal fruits and vegetables to buy that week. You may be surprised by what they develop a taste for when they can ‘try before you buy.’
In the garden
- There are lots of things your children can grow, even in small pots. If they grow it, they are much more likely to eat it.
- Foods that I find very low care, quick and easy to grow (no green thumb required), include peas (snow and sugar snap), beans, tomatoes (small varieties are best for kids because they fruit more quickly), herbs, lettuce and most green leafy vegetables.
In the kitchen
- If you are planning to cook or bake together, make sure you have enough time and are in the right frame of mind to do so. Kids love cooking and eating their achievement. Older children also improve their literacy and numeracy and can learn a lot about measuring, fractions and most importantly how a meal or dish comes together to end up on their plate.
- Mixing, whisking, stirring, tossing salad (whatever’s safe for the child and the food). There’s no point giving a young child a job they’re not quite ready for or one that will stress either of you.
- Cracking eggs is good for older children.
- Peeling or grating vegetables or fruits (with care). My daughter is now old enough to even top and tail the beans (yippee cause I hate that job).
- Picking leaves. This is a great job for even a very young child (and a great help to parents). I personally hate picking herb leaves like mint off the woody stems. But kids often love it.
- Spinning the salad spinner is a real winner in our house (even if it sometimes spins right off the bench)!
- Scrubbing spuds.
- Pressing buttons on the food processor (supervised of course).
- Licking the cake mix bowl! Deliciousness in life is essential, and let’s face it, there’s nothing better!
When preparing school lunches
- Kids of any age are old enough to contribute to packing lunches. Little ones might just pack the prepared foods from the chopping board into the box. Older kids might pack their entire lunch. Any participation, any time is of value.
At the table
- Setting the table, folding or cutting napkins into creative shapes, giving them free creative reign.
- Older kids love to play restaurants where they set the table, write out menus and serve the dinner. Even little ones can fold paper towel napkins (just may end up like my sons, scrunched rather than folded).
- We play a game where the kids have to try to guess every ingredient in the meal (right down to the salt and pepper). This is great for developing food knowledge and a future food critic palate!
- Avoid labelling food as ‘good for you’ or ‘healthy’. Kids often don’t want to be good, so they will use food as a weapon against you! Also ‘healthy’ just isn’t appealing to most children (unless they’ve been recently sick and you can discuss food in terms of preventing further illness).
- Do appeal to your child’s interests. e.g.; ‘I hear beans can make you really strong and fast’ (me to my my superhero loving son) or ‘the vitamins in these beans are really important for shiny hair (to my older vain daughter). Whatever the current ‘flavour is’ – pirates or princesses, famous singers or sports prowess, appeal to each child individually (I will expand on this stand alone topic later). Don’t harp on, little hints, no nagging!
- Lots of praise, even if the end result isn’t always pretty. If a given task is just not working out, redirect them to another. I always say “that’s a great job you’re doing but, if you could help me with setting the table now (for example), that would help mum out a lot”
- Patience, persistence, positivity and praise.
This topic is another can of worms – but I hope I have inspired and empowered you to make any necessary changes.
Once again I welcome questions and comments. Do you have any ways to get kids ‘involved’? How have you built your families food culture?