I don't have children. And because of that, I've always felt a little bit like I didn't have the authority to suggest to parents how they should be feeding their kids. I've changed my mind, though. I have come to see through all of my friends with kids and my six nieces and nephews all under the age of six, that there are things that work, and then there are habits that create absolute nightmare situations.
Last summer at my cottage, we wanted to give my niece Mia (of cookie-baking fame) a roasting over the campfire experience. 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.
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.
Here is what I know for sure: Kids should not eat sugar. And they won't love you any less if you don't give them sugar. 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. Children on sugar is a very, very bad idea, and the quantities in which we are giving kids sugar is absolutely insane. 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.
Guess what? You created this.
Your children are not filling your treat cupboards or junk drawers. Why would you even want a drawer you label exclusively for "junk?" Junk is another word for garbage, something you throw away. They didn't develop a bedtime snack habit of milk and cookies, bites of chocolate or some other sweet treat on their own. You helped that along. Offering a sugary dessert after dinner, packing a sugary treat in a lunch box and disguising dessert as breakfast 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.
We can all do better! So let's do better. 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 when they're old enough, go off to camp, the mall, college, or living on their own. Children's habits and understanding of food, however, form inside the house, as kids, and are largely influenced by your habits.
What You Can Do To Promote Better Eating Habits
1. Meal Times Are Sacred
Even if you don't start by changing the food on your plates, change the energy around meal time. 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 enjoying the meal, considering all the people involved in bringing this 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 sometimes need an even quicker end. If your kids decide they don't like what you're making, and you choose to make everyone their own meal, that is a precedent you are setting and that you will have to keep it up. If they throw a tantrum for a cookie and then a second one, and you give in, you have given in and 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. Or don't have cookies in the house at all.
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, wraps 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 and 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 Crap!
Get the crap 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 get 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.
How Do I Know This Works?
It works on kids because it's the exact same thing we need to practice for adults, too! We're all the same and when we take part in the process, show our gratitude for what's on our plate, understand the choices we're making, eliminate temptation, be consistent and understand the why, being consistent becomes consistently simple.
Kids behave better when they are not fuelled by sugar, and have been given whole, nourishing, real food meals. And you know what? So do you and I.
A Simple Family Meal Idea To Try Out
Yield: 4 servings
- 1 cup quinoa
- 2 cups water
- 1 can organic chickpeas, rinsed thoroughly
- 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 sliced black olives
- ½ cup cranberries
- ½ cup sunflower seeds, toasted
- ½ cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
- Flax oil
- Lemon juice
- Apple cider vinegar
- Dash of sea salt and cayenne pepper to taste
- Rinse quinoa thoroughly and place in pot with water. Bring to a rapid boil and then lower simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes until water is absorbed. Remove from heat, allow to sit for 5 minutes and then fluff grain with a fork.
- While quinoa is cooking, steam broccoli, carrots and cauliflower just until soft, but not mushy, about 6 minutes. They should be very vibrant in colour.
- Give each member of your family a bowl with about ½ to 1 cup of the cooked quinoa. Invite them to add the toppings of their choice (suggest at least 5).
- Let them season as they like.
- Sit down at the table, and enjoy together.