In recent posts, I've covered some ideas to promote nutrition at home and reviewed a quick list of health and nutrition goals from medical experts. Both of these generated a lot of discussion in our office, not to mention tons of ideas, questions, and emails from parents! One of the recurring themes was the challenge of actually putting these ideas into practice with active, opinion-filled kids. I bounced the idea around with our team and came up with some suggestions.
Start When They're Young
The first point our nutritionists and childhood experts made was that the earlier you start with kids, the better. Kids don't have preconceived notions about food so if you introduce food (say, vegetables or fish) early on, they're more likely to continue for life. What if your kids are older? Well, here are some more ideas...
Many parents feel like everything their kids eat should be healthy; then they feel guilty when kids eat something that's not 100% nutritious. We have busy schedules, kids attend school and events, they celebrate holidays and birthday parties, and they're often supervised by family, friends, or babysitters. (One of my father's favorite things is to take the kids out for ice cream, and I can confirm firsthand that everyone has a blast!) There's nothing wrong with less healthy choices, as long as they're done in moderation. For example, sugary treats should really be "treats" and exceptions, not everyday snacks or worse, meal replacements.
Choose the Healthy Foods Your Kids Like and Make Them Fun
Find out which foods your children like and choose them. If your son loathes peas but will eat beans or broccoli, go with the latter. Even better, let them choose the items; just indicate that they need to specifically choose 2 fruits and 3 vegetables to eat each day. If they choose the foods, they're more likely to select items that they'll actually eat and obviously, feel less like they're being forced into something.
In terms of making this fun, many things can be done. Most children enjoy chips and dip so how can we make these healthy? Use vegetables or baked chips and use yogurt or vegetable dip. This will eliminate the fried chips and high-fat dips. Most kids love sweet potatoes so use this fact and make baked sweet potato chips or mix sweet potatoes with Brussels sprouts for part of the meal. When I was young, my mother knew that I loved peanut butter so she'd cut an apple in half and apply peanut butter to both halves. When I was very young, she'd actually use cookie cutters to cut up the fruits into different shapes. Suddenly, my lunch or afternoon snack included fruits that I liked!
Involve Kids in the Process
As I've mentioned in the past, involve them in the purchasing and preparation. They're much more likely to eat the food if they help buy it and prepare it. Think about a scavenger hunt at the grocery store for healthy items. Lots of sources exist for healthy recipes at home. We provide some in our program, with the idea that not only are the recipes healthy, but they're fun ways to spend time with your kids (while getting stronger buy-in). Here's an example:
My sister is a master at this with her two boys. She does a great job of choosing healthy foods and involving them in the process. One activity that they enjoy is making smoothies. Like many kids, her boys love milkshakes and smoothies. She substitutes low-fat yogurt for ice cream and then adds fruits and vegetables. The kids help her chop up the ingredients and blend them, having fun in the process. Equally important, they love drinking the healthy result!
Make Healthy Food Accessible
All too often, the cupboard or refrigerator is filled with less healthy options. If we want our kids to choose healthy drinks and snacks, we need to make them readily available. Have plenty of healthy food on hand. Try to keep cut-up fruit or quick options like grapes available for snacks. It has been shown that this in itself can make a big difference in kids' choices.
I'm a huge proponent of "gamification," with the belief that if kids have fun and receive a challenge, they're more likely to participate. Create challenges for them, identifying foods that are healthy and those that are not. Highlight and praise their positive choices during meals and snacks. Reward their healthy behavior! This could mean something like an extra few minutes playing or tickets to a special event. You know your children -- focus on the rewards that work best for each child!
As adults, we know that putting goals down on paper forces us to focus on the items and evaluate how we're doing against each goal. Kids are no different. This can also be a way to gamify things. Here's a simple chart that you can use with your kids to track and reward their choices.
Be an Example
All of us parents know that kids imitate us, copying the things we say and the things we do (the good and the bad!). If you provide an example by making healthy choices, they're significantly more likely to do the same. The corollary to this involves the examples of other family members. They also follow the examples of their siblings. A neat idea that I've heard some families use is to rotate choices for the day or week. One family member gets to choose the vegetables for a certain day and all of the other family members have to try it. This involves everyone in the process and can help expand the healthy options.
At the most basic level, we need to teach kids what's healthy and why it's healthy. That's one of the key messages in every one of our videos at Adventure to Fitness. Because the animated episodes are fun and presented as part of a story, kids don't see them as teaching ("preaching"). We have received amazing feedback and great stories over the past four years. One of the most touching involved a special needs school in Florida. The principal explained that their students cover a wide range across the autism spectrum. One particular challenge over the previous 5 years had been trying to change the children's food and beverage choices, which is particularly challenging with this group of kids who are strongly tied to habits. After continuing to hear the repeated messages in our episodes and seeing the "victories" of our healthy characters in the stories, over 50% of the children now bring water to school, rather than high-sugar fruit juices. She actually broke into tears when she told the story and hugged our team. This is clearly an extreme example. The point, however, is that when we educate kids and reinforce the learning (such as through fun stories and activities), we can change behavior. This can work with any child, regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, or physical ability!