Few doubt the benefits of healthy eating for kids. In the short term, a healthy diet improves behavior and performance in school, and in the long term, it decreases the risk of cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. This is why most parents fight the good fight: despite their kids' adamant protests, parents limit McDonalds, force-feed some vegetables, and restrict junk food before meals. But many parents don't realize that healthy eating does not have to be a daily struggle. Studies show that early education and healthy patterns can make kids actually enjoy nutritious foods so parents don't have to fight the daily Battle of the Greens. Below are ways you can help your kids learn about nutrition, prefer healthy foods, and enjoy a lifetime of eating right.
- It starts with you. Most parents agree that the best vegetables are potatoes (when fried), tomatoes (when in the form of ketchup), and cucumbers (when pickled and placed between a bun and 16 ounces of beef). But we can't expect to successfully stuff fresh green beans into our kids while we chow down on hamburgers every chance we get. Kids want to eat what their parents eat. So if you want your kid to eat healthy (without violence) you are going to have to win an Oscar for your performance in "A Man and his Brussels Sprouts: A Love Affair."
- Try to convince Mom to eat healthy too. Moms are more than just role models. Their eating habits actually affect kids' future tastes. Studies show that if mothers eat fruits and veggies during pregnancy and nursing, their kids are more likely to prefer healthy foods. Sorry, dads. Unfortunately pregnancy can't be a nine-month pizza eating, milk-shake chugging, I-gained-20-pounds-and-I'm-not-even-carrying-a-baby weight-gain contest between you and your wife. Despite her protests, you actually have to encourage her to eat fruits and vegetables. This may help you keep off the daddy pregnancy weight, and give your kids a taste for veggies, which will make your life easier down the road.
- It starts young. Research shows that kids develop preferences for foods by age three that last throughout their lives. So you should try to develop healthy tastes early. Expose your kids to many types of fruits and vegetables, and don't get discouraged. You might give your infant a little sweet potato, and she will spit it out with a disdainful "You think I eat this garbage?" stare. Try it again later in the week. After several exposures kids often begin to like a food that they were absolutely refusing a few days earlier.
- Avoid excessive additives. At a young age, kids develop a taste for additives, food coloring, and preservatives. These are almost impossible to avoid entirely, but it is good to limit the amount of processed foods your baby eats. Some parents like using organic baby foods, while others find that making baby food at home is easier than they expected. Homemade baby food is fresher and cheaper, and it gives you the ability to expose your baby to a wide range of fruits and vegetables.
- Get kids involved. Studies show that kids eat better if they know about nutrition. Don't just say, "Eat the spinach. I will not admit that it looks like a slimy, wet ball of grass. Eat it anyway." Instead, explain the concepts. Talk about how eating keeps you healthy. Look at the food pyramid together to plan out weekly requirements. Take your kids to the store and give them the freedom to pick out their favorite fruits or healthy snacks to have around the house. Get them involved in preparing meals. Kids are much more likely to eat a food that they know about, picked, and helped prepare than a food that they are unfamiliar with.
- Make healthy foods desirable. If you always have battles over vegetables and then reward your kids with cookies, you are sending a certain message: healthy foods are a chore, and junk food is a treat. This pattern will ensure that your kids skip the healthy food when you aren't around to be the enforcer. Try rewarding your kids with raspberries rather than candy or junk food. Don't try to force down vegetables that they hate. Instead, stick with the veggies they like, or try to find new ways to prepare the vegetables they don't like.
- Sugar-free does not mean healthy. To avoid sugary drinks just give your kids diet coke, right? Wrong. The artificial chemicals in diet sodas have been linked with hyperactivity, and rat studies show that artificial sweetener is linked with obesity. Diet sodas are much less healthy than most people realize. Try sticking with water or juices with no added sugars.