smiling girl with fresh produce

Raising Healthy Eaters

smiling girl with fresh produceOur last remark last week was a point that bears repeating: It’s the dynamic of your lifestyle as a whole that makes the biggest impact on your health and well-being – orally and systemically.

Healthful eating is the foundation. And the earlier we can establish healthy eating patterns, the better. After all, research suggests that our food habits are set fairly early in life, perhaps as early as infancy.

Now a new survey from the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health suggests that we could do a whole lot better in shaping those habits.

Only about half of parents said that their kids ate “mostly healthy.” But less than 20% said their kids’ diets were “very nutritious.” More, about 20% said they find no need to limit kids’ access to junk food, while 16% feel it’s not important to restrict consumption of sugary drinks.

Perhaps they’ve given up, considering the modern food environment, in which the junkiest of junk is especially marketed to youth. Why fight a losing battle? And there are plenty of other challenges, as well.

“Most parents understand that they should provide healthy food for their children, but the reality of work schedules, children’s activities and different food preferences can make meal preparation a hectic and frustrating experience,” says poll co-director Sarah Clark.

We could add to that list: lack of access to healthful food, lack of cooking knowledge, tight family budgets, and more. It can take real commitment and planning to be able to easily provide healthful meals throughout the week – difficult, yes, but not impossible, even when budget is as tight as time.

But it also helps when you model the behaviors you’d like to have your kids emulate. If we eat healthfully, they’re more apt to, as well. As one review notes,

Children learn about food through the direct experience of eating and by observing the eating behavior of others. Leann Birch found that the selection and consumption of vegetables by preschool-age children were influenced by the choices of their peers. When preschool-age children observed the eating behavior of adults, it had a similar effect. For example, Helen Hendy and Bryan Raudenbush found that children’s intake of a novel food increased at those meals during which they observed a teacher enthusiastically consuming the food.

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Parental modeling has also been associated with greater fruit juice and vegetable intake among school-age children.

It’s also wise to begin introducing new foods early. Here’s how one mom described her family’s approach and experience to us:

I think introducing different tastes early often surprises parents. They’re amazed that their children like Indian food or Thai, sushi, etc.

Even if my kids didn’t like the food I was serving, we had them at least try it. We waivered in the “you must eat it, there is nothing else being offered” approach, shifting to the “if you don’t like it, make something else for yourself” approach while they were younger.

My son’s allergies kind of threw us off of that, as we were kind of handcuffed into being more selective. I will say that being gluten-free and finding allergy-free foods has seemed to get us into more natural, organic food. I would guess that he is my healthiest kid despite his allergies because we have to be so mindful of the ingredients in his food, which often puts us on that path to fresh versus canned/frozen/artificial. We also can’t eat out pretty much anywhere due to the cross-contamination possibilities, so we are completely the opposite of my fast-food youth. We are 99% home cooked meals, and we will make a lot of food that can be easily modified (spaghetti squash with different sauces, tacos with both corn and flour tortillas plus a variety of toppings, homemade pizzas and soups that include various veggies, etc.).

Another strategy is to shift the family view of food from nutrition to one more grounded in pleasure, adventure, and even fun – what’s been described as “a junior version of the famous ‘French Paradox’”:

French kids eat everything, from fruit salad to foie gras, spinach to stinky blue cheese. They eat things most North American kids (and some of their parents) would never dream of eating, like cardoons. (Don’t worry, I’d never heard of them either.) I have witnessed three-year-olds devouring seafood of all sorts and toothless babies sipping everything from béchamel sauce to vegetable bouillon. Some have even more exotic preferences: Didier, who would cheerfully savor la langue de boeuf (beef tongue), or little Fabrice, whose favorite food was museau à la vinaigrette (pickled pig snout), or baby Claire, who gummed her daily ration of Roquefort cheese with obvious delight.

True, you might find the rare French child who has an aversion to specific foods…. But, for the most part, French kids consume anything put in front of them. They eat in a straightforward, joyous, and all-embracing way that seems baffling to the ordinary North American. And everyone assumes this is normal—including the kids.

You can find more helpful, practical tips for getting kids to eat healthier, “adult” foods here and here.

And for even more insight to kids’ eating and how to raise them into healthful eating patterns, be sure to check out Dr. Dina Rose’s fantastic blog It’s Not About Nutrition.

Image by Superfit asia, via Flickr