How to get kids to eat healthier

How to get kids to eat healthier
Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Something I read when my firstborn was still rather young has stuck with me ever since: Give your children a sense of power and autonomy by providing them with simple choices — A or B — as often as possible, so that it’s not always Mom’s way or the highway. I have literally been doing this for about four years. And right now, it’s really only working for one thing: My two-year-old is usually okay with choosing between two shirts to wear to school.

That’s it.

Everything else I offer at this age ends up in a power struggle — if I ask them which store they want to go to to pick up something like diapers and wipes because both options are close and convenient to me, the question is always: Can I get a toy?

If I offer any sort of pants to my four-year-old to choose from that aren’t sweats or track pants, the choice will be no pants at all!

I know myself and my kids well enough now to just TELL them where we’re going for diapers and wipes (and no, you can’t get a toy) and to only offer sweats or track pants to my older son, unless I want everyone to be rushing and in a bad mood the whole morning.

I also know now that, given the choice, my four-year-old will pick bacon and only bacon for breakfast every day. They would both probably pick turkey hot dogs for lunch every day if I let them. And at snack time, if they had their way they would be eating a mix of crackers, cookies, chips, candy, donuts, fruit snacks and cake. Of course! What kid wouldn’t, right?! Unless…

Unless I just stop asking them what they want, I thought to myself a few times. Why am I so hung up on this rule that I have to always offer them a choice in every single thing they do? If you read my blog, you know that food choices are, to me, incredibly important…even though they’re also incredibly personal. So if I know my kids so well, why do I offer them grapes if I know they’re going to say no? Why don’t I just PUT THEM ON THE TABLE?

I don’t know why it took me so long to revamp their breakfasts and lunches, but this has been the key to getting them to eat healthier meals. I always include fruit and vegetables at dinner, and they eat a wide variety — apples, red grapes, pineapple, broccoli, cauliflower, watermelon, mushrooms, even the occasional bit of salad or onion — but if I offered some crispy onions to them as an OPTION, of course they would say no! They are two and four. Who am I kidding?

It is often said that you eat with your eyes first, but my kids most certainly eat first with their noses. They can smell the mushrooms when they hit the saute pan; they know a good crunchy oven fry before it comes out of the oven. I don’t always “cook” a bevy of options for breakfast and lunch, but when the kids do smell the bacon, sausage or homemade pancakes cooking, they can’t wait to get a taste. If they see me prepare a pretty plate of roasted veggies and poached eggs for lunch, they want in!

I know this may be hard to swallow, but with my kids at least, the key to getting them to eat healthier is to serve them what I want them to eat — without even giving them the chance to ask for something else. I do it at dinner every night: There is always something on the table that I want them to eat (and that I know they like), even if it’s not everything. It isn’t a seamless process 100% of the time — they still ask for hot dogs and pizza at least once a week — but when the spread includes new foods AND old standbys, it’s a lot easier to get past “no, no pizza tonight” when that’s otherwise all that’s on their one-track minds.

Did you read the New York Times article last month about what kids around the world eat for breakfast? The realization that I was offering “either this or that” to my kids for breakfast and lunch and not just plunking down a handful of healthy options from the get-go came to me in part after seeing the plentiful spreads laid out in those photographs. Not that I’ll be cooking rice and putrid soybeans any time soon — but it doesn’t take much effort to put a bowl of grapes on the table alongside the bacon and eggs.

What do you think? Am I creating a different kind of monster by NOT offering my kids a choice at meal times, or am I still creating built-in options, in essence, by serving a few things at a time? How does it work at your house? I’d love to hear!

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