You probably can't be with your kids at every meal, and you can't always track what they eat when they're away. But take heart, parents: What you do at home makes a huge difference.
Advice from Chef Ann Cooper, the "Renegade Lunch Lady."
Most of the parents we know complain that their children refuse to eat healthfully and come to us in search of magic recipes that will put an end to mealtime madness. The real problem most often lies with the parents, not the kids. Most of us are so accustomed to eating out, grabbing a fast food something or other on a lunch break, and buying prepared foods in the grocery store that we don't even know what good food is anymore. In order to be good role models we must educate ourselves first and then practice what we preach.
Unfortunately we don't all live near farms or farmer's markets, so it's not easy for us or our children to feel a connection with good, whole foods. One way to help them learn is to make a point to take them grocery shopping with you. Of course it's probably easier to go alone when there's someone at home to watch them or they're at school, but it's important for them to see foods in their raw states so they can explore and ask questions.
Remember, anything in moderation is okay. Of course if you eat doughnuts in moderation, followed by potato chips in moderation and soda in moderation, it is no longer healthy. Having a cookie every day and balancing it with healthy foods is a good practice of moderation.
There are all sorts of fun things we can do to make mealtime special. First and foremost, sit down and enjoy your food. Take time to savor flavors. Children should never eat while walking around. We understand that some young children have difficulty sitting for the entire meal. In those cases we recommend allowing the child to get up once or twice, while encouraging the child to sit, not stand, at the table when he or she comes back to eat.
Ever find yourself making one meal for the adults in the house and another for the kids (or even one for each kid)? Children take their time warming up to new things and if you keep giving them the old stand-bys they're not going to branch out and explore new foods. Be patient. Most research says that it takes an average of 10 to 12 times before a child will try a new food unless they are involved in cooking and gardening projects. Make the same dinner for everyone in the family while taking some time to put some foods on the plate that your children like, then add something new. If they don't touch it don't worry about it and definitely don't make an argument out of it. Try again the next week and again the following week. Eventually they'll surprise you by at least tasting that new food.
Kids don't need frozen chicken nuggets, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and pizza to keep them happy. And those kinds of foods certainly don't make for healthy children. Avoid preprocessed foods at all costs and start talking to your children about what constitutes a good diet and why it's important for them to avoid foods like the ones mentioned above. Even a three year old can grasp why sodas aren't good for you and why we don't eat foods with lots of fat every day at every meal. Highly processed foods are loaded with chemicals, synthetic fats, additives, and food colorings.
Okay, we know M&Ms have a long history as the greatest bribe candy on earth for potty training; even the most health conscious mom may break down and try M&Ms during that oh-so-critical stage of development. Don't give in! Stickers work just as well and you won't be setting a precedent for using food as a bribe or reward as your child gets older. Sure, it's okay to take the kids out for ice cream or frozen yogurt after a good (or even a bad) soccer game, just don't use it as an incentive for a good game. On the flip side, don't punish children for not eating certain foods--it will only foster a negative relationship between you and your children, not to mention your children and food.
Encourage your children to help out in the kitchen. Even a two year old can help peel potatoes or carrots. For smaller children, invest in a stool that allows your children to safely reach the kitchen counter so they can see what you're doing, or if you have room, set up a work station at your child's height so she can participate without having to stand on tiptoes to do so. Taller children may only need a small wooden step stool to reach a comfortable height. If a child is interested in doing more in the kitchen, don't automatically assume that she can't or that the task will be too dangerous.
Love and accept your child at any weight, size or shape. During childhood growth is unpredictable at best. It comes in spurts and a once skinny child can suddenly plump up while his height catches up with his weight. There's a lot of pressure in our society to be thin and you might be tempted to put your child on a diet during a growth spurt, but that won't be helpful and may even cause emotional and physical damage. Instead, help your child maintain his weight until his height catches up. The best way to do that is to teach good healthy eating habits.
It's the most important meal of the day, and it should ideally be the largest meal of the day to get your child off on the right foot. After ten to twelve hours with no food it's important to refuel the engines. If they don't eat in the morning they'll be tired and unable to concentrate in school before lunch. It's essential that children jumpstart their metabolism in the morning so their bodies don't enter starvation mode, which might later cause them to experience difficulty maintaining a healthy body weight.
A good diet is only part of the equation. In order to stay healthy our bodies need exercise. Studies have shown that vigorous exercise boosts the immune system and increases our ability to concentrate. Help your children find physical activities they enjoy and encourage them to get outside to play as often as possible.
Adults need to set the boundaries for kids because left to their own devices they may choose salty and sugary processed foods over fresh, healthier choices. Children actually do much better when they know that they have boundaries and limits. Listen to your child, but set clear limits and guide them towards the healthier option.
Chef Ann and Lisa Holmes eye the nutritional decline of America's school cafeterias, then turn things upside-down.
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