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.
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.
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.
- Listen to my podcast episode on Raising Adventurous Eaters
- Eliminate sugar for a full week — this guide will make it easy.
- Try some of these 21 lunch ideas that aren't sandwiches
- Try these tips on breaking the junk food habit
- Discover why Goldfish Crackers don't belong in a lunch box
- Stop feeding your kids these five ingredients
A Simple Family Meal Idea To Try Out
Yield: 4 servings
- 2 cups cooked quinoa, brown rice or cauliflower rice
- 2 cups water
- 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
- Flax oil
- Lemon juice
- Apple cider vinegar
- Cook grain, beans and meat/chicken if using as desired.
- Prep the topping options that you will offer the family.
- 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).
- Let them season as they like.
- 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.