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Don’t Blame Your Kids For What They Eat

 

This is an update on a post I wrote before I had a child of my own. Now that I have one of my own, plus more nieces and nephews than I can keep track of (only kidding – I have seven), I know that what I have written here is true through and through. Proper eating habits in our kids have very little to do with our kids and everything to do with the habits we lead within our own lives. So don't blame your kids for what they eat.

There are strategies that work, and then there are habits that create absolute nightmare situations. Ultimately, what you buy and make is will have the biggest influence on what your kids eat – after all, kids aren't doing their own grocery shopping. This means it's up to you if noodles and cheese, or frozen chicken nuggets, or goldfish crackers or bags of cookies are an option. And then it also becomes up to you how the mealtime battles will go.

YOU ARE IN CHARGE OF What Your Child Eats

Your children are not filling your treat cupboards or junk drawers. The little ones didn't develop a bedtime snack habit of milk and cookies, bites of chocolate or some other sweet treat on their own. As parents, we are directly responsible for helping that along. Offering a sugary dessert after dinner, packing a sugary treat in a lunch box and disguising dessert as breakfast (hello "breakfast cookies") are bad habits that parents often form. Why? Because in that moment, it's easier to say yes and avoid the immediate repercussions than to begin to instil new patterns and break old habits.

You have to make the decision for yourself first and stick to it. You will then have the confidence to make the decision for your household. You have to stick to that one, too.

The Sugar Habit

A few years ago at my cottage, we wanted to give my niece Mia (of cookie-baking fame) a roasting over the campfire experience. She was three at the time, and is now nine (how time flies). We don't do the processed sugary marshmallow thing, and so we opted for apples. We sliced them up, put them on the sticks, built our campfire and Mia danced around the yard while we roasted up some apples for her.

Roasted Apple

Mia patiently waited until they were ready. We carefully peeled off the charred apple peel, taught her to blow on them to cool them off. And then she ate them up. Devoured might be a better word for it.

Kids don't need to eat sugar. There is no optimal or safe amount. It's just not necessary. One of the most ridiculous things we get told is that because our son Finley has never had sugar, he will lose his mind and be out of control with it when he finally does. Maybe. Maybe not. There are a lot of unknowns, but the possibility of this happening seems like a pretty weak reason to stuff him full of cupcakes and candy right now. At this point, he doesn't even know he's missing anything, and a banana dipped in bee pollen and hemp seeds is his most favourite thing ever.

Limiting or eliminating sugar and processed foods from your home will not turn your children against you. (Well, if they're of a certain age, it might for a time but they'll come back!) Chances are good that they may actually express more love without sugar as they won't be experiencing the cranky-pants, irritable, unsettled feelings that sugar induces in children (and adults, too). We know how we feel when we have a sugar crash or have sugar cravings. Imagine how this feels for a child who doesn't understand the cause of his or her anxiety and concentration challenges. It's an inner discomfort that is often expressed with hyperactivity, violence, meltdown tears or all of the above.

Parents will claim that it's because their kids want it. They ask for it. They beg for it. They cry and throw tantrums over it. They'll sneak it if you don't give it to them. This should be enough of an indication that this is a powerful and dangerous substance.

How do you break the sugar habit?

It may be virtually impossible to control what your children are exposed to outside of your home when they go to birthday parties, friends' houses and as they get older go off to camp, the mall, college, or live on their own. Children's habits and understanding of food, however, are from inside the house as kids and are largely influenced by your habits. How do you break the sugar habit? Eliminate it from your home is the first, and really only place to start.

What You Can Do To Promote Better Eating Habits

1. Make Meal Times Sacred

Even if you don't start by changing the food on your plates, change the energy around mealtime. Make mealtime a sacred time for family and connection. Ban the screens and take the time to connect. Even with kids at a young age, you can begin your meal with a practice of gratitude for the time you get to spend together and consider all the people involved in getting the meal to the table. Know that though your kids do not need to eat everything on their plate, simply declaring themselves done eating does not excuse them from being present for the duration of the meal.

2. Do As You Intend To Continue

Bad habits can be quick to form and in desperate moments feel like the most essential and only option. I know – I have been there with an overtired, hungry toddler thrashing and throwing food. In these moments, we may offer one other option and if it's not accepted, then mealtime is over. It's that simple. If your kids decide they don't like what you're making, and you choose to make every person their own meal, that is a precedent you are setting and that you will have to keep up. If they throw a tantrum to get a cookie and you give in, your kids know you will give in in the future. Just like that, you've created a habit. Stop it before it starts, or at least stop it now. And don't keep cookies in the house that you don't want them eating.

3. Eliminate the Phrase "Picky Eater"

It takes time for kids (and sometimes grown-ups) to develop a taste for some vegetables, whole grains, beans and such. Declaring a child (or spouse!) a picky eater gives them permission to wear that title with a badge of honour. That doesn't serve anyone. If your child or anyone else you help nourish is selective about their meals, offer meals that allow customizations so the base is the healthy option you establish and give everyone around the table permission to customize their toppings. This works great with loaded sweet potatoes, pizzas, and burrito wraps.

4. Explain The Why

This is a big one and it's important for all of us to know. We need to understand why we're making the food choices we're making. Telling your kids broccoli will make them big and strong isn't always enough. Tell your kids the truth about their food. Tell them what happens to cows and chickens in feedlots. Tell them about the chemicals in their cereals. Tell them about the sugar and chocolate trades and the lives of the people who grow these for us in third world countries. Seriously! Tell them why you like to buy your vegetables from your local farmer and even better, let your kids get to meet that farmer or visit that farm. Show them a video about how hot dogs are made. Educate your kids on why you eat the way you do so that you're not always the one saying no. Let them understand why your family makes the choices it does so the decision and understanding comes from them too.

5. Cut the Junk and The Excuses

Get the junk food out of your house. This one is on you! You can't tell your kids they can't have something one week, and then have it show up in your home the next because you wanted some. Don't keep your house junk-free and then load up on junk food for birthday parties or "special occasions". There are always healthful options. If you don't do things consistently, your kids will quickly recognize the loopholes in your methods and cartwheel on through them. They will know that if they ask enough times, you will break. Or even more challenging, they will never understand the why fully, and think your "no's" are arbitrary, leading to more tears and tantrums. If you want treats in the house, make them yourself, or even better, get your kids in on the fun.
Better Eating Habits with Your Child

How Do I Know This Works?

It works on kids because it's the same process for adults, too. We're all the same! When we show gratitude for what's on our plate, understand the choices we're making, eliminate temptation, be consistent and understand the why, being consistent becomes simple.

Kids behave better when they are not fuelled by sugar and are given whole, nourishing, real food meals. And you know what? So do you and I.

A Simple Family Meal Idea To Try Out

Veggie Powered Dinner Bowl

Rating 

Prep time: 

Cook time: 

Total time: 

Yield: 4 servings

Ditch the sugar and indulge in wholesome deliciousness with this nutrient-packed Veggie Powered Quinoa Bowl.

Ingredients
Choose 5-6 of the following:
  • 2 cups cooked chickpeas
  • 2 chopped chicken breasts, baked or stir-fried
  • 1 cup broccoli, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup cauliflower, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup carrots, grated
  • 1 cup spinach, coarsely chopped
  • 1 red pepper, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped fine
  • ½ cup cranberries
  • ½ cup sunflower seeds, toasted
  • ½ cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
Dressing Options
  • Flax oil
  • Tamari
  • Lemon juice
  • Tahini
  • Apple cider vinegar

Make It Like So
  1. Cook grain, beans and meat/chicken if using as desired.
  2. Prep the topping options that you will offer the family.
  3. Give each member of your family a bowl with about ½ to 1 cup of the quinoa/rice/cauli-rice and invite them to add the toppings of their choice (suggest at least 5).
  4. Let them season as they like.
  5. Sit down at the table, and enjoy together.

There Are No Guarantees. I know This

I know that there are no guarantees that this wi

ll carry through the whole life of our children. I know that it's a completely different story when you have older kids, teenagers and young adults. However, is knowing that the control and having your say won't last forever a reason not to try? Is that a reason to not do our best to guide and educate, and share in the deliciousness and joy of good food. If the health impact doesn't speak to your older children, find the way in that does. Is it the impact our food choices have on our appearance? Is is the impact our food choices have on the climate? Is it the grossly inhumane treatment of the people who grow, and process the food? Is it the impact food choices can have on animal welfare?

There can be many ways in, and many ways to inspire informed choice for ourselves and our families no matter the age. It's just up to us to care enough and recognize the importance enough to try. What may seem like the easiest option today, likely creates a lot more challenges down the road.

11 Responses to “Don’t Blame Your Kids For What They Eat”

  1. tl.mosley@yahoo.ca said…
    Terrific post. I will never forget being in an airport departure area during storm delay watching two different families deal with toddlers as we waited out the storm. One wanting 'drink' got periodic sips of water given by parents and played calmly, watched what was going on around her, generally calm, kept her clothes clean. The other poor thing was handed a bottle of blue energy drink and my Heavens what a sweaty, frantic little mess she was crawling all over everyone and everything, shaking her head, flailing arms, throwing the bottle, on and on. Everyone staring. You don't like to stick your nose in but golly, talk about making a kid miserable and grubby ....and then get on a plane! I wouldn't drink that stuff. Can't imagine letting a child indiscriminately pore it into herself. I bet one mouthful just makes you more thirsty given the salt and chemicals, not satiated.
  2. Kika said…
    I agree with your conclusions but please recognize that Mia is very young. As kids get older they sometimes rebel or, in the case of my older kids, ask me to compromise or be more flexible. They see that we already eat quite differently from most of their peers and feel like I'm unreasonable to not flex here and there. When they travel for sports I pack them snacks but the teams invariably eat fast food as well. I do try to discuss things as opposed to being gestapo-like but especially when they hit 17 and up they will ultimately choose for themselves. Fortunately my oldest is tight with his money so will rarely spend any on junk food.
    • Meghan Telpner said…
      They sure will! All the more reason to at least give them the foundation of good food, when you can. Sounds like you've done a great job!
  3. Mindy F said… September 24, 2019
    Wow, excellent article Meghan - thank you for reinforcing what I have always felt about promoting healthy food habits with your children. My kid is actually grown up now - 26. He just recently moved far from home into his own apartment with his girlfriend, and during a video chat with him, he proudly opened his fridge and cupboards to show me all the fresh vegetables, fruit, ocean caught fish, and olive oil - and no processed junk. He and his girlfriend build a weekly meal and grocery shopping plan, and pack their own healthy lunches for work. I am definitely a happy and proud Mom!
  4. I love this post and 100% agree with everything you say here. But I also agree with the commenter about the much older kids, and sports teams etc....I always did exactly as you discuss, and my kids knew they ate differently than their peers (and were fine with it) but as they go through teenagehood it becomes so much harder....whether its peer pressure (more often from parents of other kids which is even more upsetting), or curiosity or whatever, they do start eating not as healthfully outside the home (and we really tried our best to be consistent, I cant say 100% but most of the time). I beleive it's because as teenagers they think they've been eating healthy all along what's the harm in eating like "everyone else" for a while......I am hoping it's a phase and when they get older, or especially after becoming parents themselves they will revert back to what we instilled in them at home, the foundation is super important.
    • Yes, you're right it is much more difficult to control what kids eat as they get older - which is why that good foundation is important. Many of the graduates of the Culinary Nutrition Expert program echo that sentiment in this post, which you might also find helpful: https://www.culinarynutrition.com/kids-addicted-to-junk-food/
  5. Camila Campos said… September 24, 2019
    Awesome post, Meghan! Thank you! I have a daughter few months younger than Finn so I fell super lucky to always have you having my back 😄 Little question... I know for most people it could sounds like "rich people problems" (or in that case, "undiet" family problems hehe) but what should I do when my daughter is not feeling like eating dinner but is asking for some blueberries and coconut mana instead? Because yes, I know it is a healthy option (she doesn't even know any unhealthy food) but it's still sugar... And for me it's kind she was asking "can we skip dinner and have some dessert?" You know what I mean?! 🙈
    • Hi Camila - that certainly can be challenging, and you're probably right when you say that your daughter is basically asking to skip dinner and go straight for dessert. It's up to each parent to navigate this differently, but in our home we aim to limit the sweet fruits and we wouldn't give them as a substitute for dinner. There were some occasions, as we were doing food introductions, where we'd have a backup in the freezer in case there was something he truly didn't like, but that backup was essentially the nutritional equivalent of what we initially offered.
  6. Lorena said… September 24, 2019
    Amen to that! And just as a case study...my son (now 9) didn’t have sugar until he started preschool and other kids would bring in cupcakes and cookies to hand out on their birthdays, but guess what....he usually gave them one bite and then was done. Still today he more often than not passes on the birthday cakes served at birthday parties and no, I’m not there to say anything. We trained his palate to enjoy healthy real food and that’s now simply what he prefers. Now, my daughter is different. Same upbringing, same nutrition philosophy, same food during baby and toddlerhood but she doesn’t discriminate food, lol. She loves the good and the not so good so I take advantage and feed her heeeeaps of the good so she can enjoy the sugary stuff when she’s at other people’s houses without me worrying about it :)
    • It's interesting how two children with the same upbringing can be that different. It sounds like you are handling it well, which will benefit both of your children.

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