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Chill Out! And More Secrets To Raising Healthy Eaters

Friday Jul 10, 2015 by Janet Nezon

5 Secrets To Raising Healthy Eaters | Help! We've Got Kids

It’s an important point that often gets lost in the frenzy and focus of the latest nutrition news and trends. How we eat is just as important as what we eat.

For families with young children, mealtimes are often the scene of some of the greatest stress-filled battles. I’ve heard over and over from well-meaning parents who struggle with feeding their little ones.5 Secrets To Raising Healthy Eaters | Help! We've Got Kids Everyone knows that fruits and veggies are the cornerstone of a healthy diet, but parents often say that these are the least popular foods with their kids.

It’s common to hear of negotiations with kids to eat “one more bite” of broccoli so they can have dessert. Some children will only eat one favourite food, and everything else gets pushed around on the plate.

When mealtime turns into battle time, everyone loses. I want to share five simple and proven ways to end the struggles and make eating happier and healthier for everyone.

1. Chill Out

Believe it or not, you are the biggest influence on your child’s evolving relationship with food and eating. Without meaning to, your love and concern for their well-being can season the air around the table with a ton of tension. That’s not a great recipe for success. Imagine how you would feel if someone was watching over you and commented on everything you ate or left on your plate. Would you really want to eat “one more bite” if you just weren’t feeling hungry?

My best advice: relax! Imagine and act as if you didn’t care what anyone was eating. Can you do it? Would things feel different? They would for your kids, that’s for sure.

Mealtime should be about being together and enjoying each other’s company. When you’re able to eat with your kids, use that time to chat about your day or share funny stories. When you’re relaxed at the table, your kids will be too. If the focus is taken off the food, kids are much more likely to dive in and eat what’s in front of them, and to experiment with new or unfamiliar foods.

2. Exposure Is King

Let’s face it, we all eat what we like and we like what’s familiar to us. The most powerful strategy to get your kids to embrace new foods is to make those foods available to them over and over again.

Did you know that the average child needs 15 tries before they’ll accept something new? That actually means that for some kids, it may be 20 or even 30 tries! Don’t despair. This is normal behaviour. We have to give our kids the opportunity to learn to like the foods that are new to them. For this, they need repeated exposure, without any pressure.

Now don’t think this means you have to do cartwheels or conjure up a gourmet feast. If there’s a challenging veggie in your house, just keep calmly serving it up in different ways as part of your family’s regular rotation: think roasted, steamed, chopped, raw with dip, baked into a quiche, stir-fried. Just keep putting it on the menu and sooner or later, it will get eaten. (And when that happens, you won’t even bat an eyelash...right!)

3. Don't Preach: Explore!

It’s well documented that most of us don’t eat foods because we know they’re good for us. We eat what’s appealing. The core of the Rainbow Plate approach to food education is to encourage kids to use all their senses to explore and experience a wide variety of healthy foods. The research backs this up as a powerful strategy to engage kids with food and foster lifelong healthy habits.

You can easily put this into action at home. Instead of preaching about vitamins or asking your kids why they don’t like a particular food, encourage them to explore and describe what they see, feel, smell and taste. Have you been dazzled by the incredible design inside a purple cabbage? Did you notice that cucumbers smell like summer? Can you taste the cinnamon flavour if you close your eyes as you nibble on a parsnip? Have you ever stopped to feel the delicate texture of a kale leaf?

Making food an adventure is a fun and powerful way to engage kids and help them open to eventually eating a wide variety of foods.

4. Let It Go

Disney got it right with this popular tune. One of the most important and powerful strategies you can adopt is to let your kids be in charge of their own eating. We all want our kids to be tuned into their bodies as they grow, and to be able to recognize and respond to the cues of hunger and fullness. This is so important in helping them to develop a lifelong positive relationship with food.

The simplest way to do this: stick to your job of offering a variety of healthy foods at regular meals and snacks, and then just chill out about what happens at the table. Back off and let your kids be in charge of how much they’re eating from what’s on offer, or even whether they eat at a particular meal.

It may take some time, but parenting is a long game, right? If you do your job and trust your kids, they’ll show you that they can eat what their body needs and will eventually embrace a variety of foods over time.

5. All Hands In the Mix

When kids get busy in the kitchen you’ll be amazed at what happens. Kids love to eat what they’ve helped make, and even the tiniest hands can do something to pitch in for the family meal. Take a deep breath and don’t sweat the mess—we’re chilling out about food, right?

Let your little ones wash, tear, mix, stir and even chop food for a salad or simple meal. As a side bonus, they’ll nibble and taste as they go. Let them put together a colourful creation using a rainbow of fresh veggies or fruit, and see how their imagination sparks excitement and healthy habits.

Take it a step further and go on a market or grocery store adventure to pick out new and fun foods to work into your recipes. Look for something unusual and focus on the bounty of the seasons. The Rainbow Plate Team has been having so much fun lately, introducing the chayote fruit to kids and adults. We call this the “muppet mouth” vegetable, because of its funny face! It’s mild and crunchy, and kids have loved working it into rainbow salads and wraps.

The bottom line? Take a deep breath, smile and relax around food. If you chill out at the table your kids will too. That’s what I call healthy eating.


Janet Nezon is a former academic nutrition lecturer and health promotion expert. She holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto as a Specialist in Nutritional Science, and a Master of Health Science degree in Health Promotion, from U of T’s Faculty of Medicine. She founded Rainbow Plate, supported by the Rainbow Food Education Foundation, to engage children and adults with real food in an innovative way that is evidence-based, simple and fun. 

Photography by Catherine Farquharson.

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