I’m not a licensed professional, but I do have 3 kids who love healthy food and get plenty of exercise, though the latter isn’t too difficult. I wish I had the energy I did when I was 5! I put together a list of things I’ve found helpful in promoting a healthy lifestyle with my children. It’s important to note that it hasn’t always been this way. This has taken me a while to learn and many things have changed over time, not to mention every child is drastically different. What works for me with one child won’t necessarily work for you, so if you take my advice, be sure to tweak anything to fit your family better.
I’d also like to disclose that I’m far from perfect. I don’t have a kitchen of perfectly healthy things and I don’t always know exactly where my food is coming from. I pick my battles and we have good days and bad days. In fact, last night we went out to dinner so I wouldn’t need to cook and after trying just about everything with my tired 2 year old, I picked my battles and just let him eat the little cup of cinnamon butter plain. It’s fine, we just do what we can and hope for the best!
So here it is. May the odds be ever in your favor:
1. Make food fun.
One of my kid’s favorite things to do each meal is create a rainbow with their food. I ask, “what other colors can we add to your plate?” and their minds start racing. Grant is my oldest, he is 5, the master artist of meal time, and will find whatever he can to create his rainbow. Cucumbers, bell peppers, apples, avocado, grapes, watermelon, cantaloupe, and carrots are the favorites right now. Fruit is sweet and packed with a natural sugar called fructose and it’s in high demand in this house, but I encourage vegetables as much as possible.
Create shapes out of the food. When I made banana pancakes for the first time, I made faces with fruit on top and that helped with the whole “strange new food” side of things. You can make faces, pictures, or people out of basically anything. Call them something different if it helps, like a forrest of broccoli.
Eat somewhere new. Have a picnic at the park, in the backyard, or even on the kitchen floor! They will love it. Eat together, don’t be distracted by your phone or the TV. Help meal time be a social family time. This is something we still work on every day!
2. Give responsibility.
I can’t tell you how much more I can get my kids to eat when they are the ones helping to make it! For example, Grant will eat a good-sized salad if we talk about the colors of the veggies while we’re cleaning, cutting, and chopping. I mix iceberg with spinach and let him rip the pieces. I cut the tomatoes and avocado, shred the carrots, chop the cucumbers, and he adds them to his own bowl himself. Sometimes I can manage to throw in a few sliced almonds without him realizing. Each new color helps his rainbow get a little bigger and whichever salad dressing he’ll take is fine by me!
The older they get, the more responsibilities I’ll add. Nikolai, my 2 year old, loves to stir and dump ingredients. I can’t wait until they’re making me meals! 😉
Have them help you in the garden to see where food comes from. Let them help you clean things, measure, and sample. They’ll enjoy their food so much more having worked for it, just like we do.
3. Educate them.
If you want to make this as simple as possible, turn on Daniel Tiger’s episode on foods. Pretty soon you’ll be singing it to them each time you see their faces cringe with those confused and questioning looks, “We try new foods cuz they might taste gooood!”
Just talk about things as you cook and answer the many questions. They’re curious and will remember more than you think! Often Grant will remind me to make healthier choices, or try and impart his knowledge to strangers. One afternoon we were getting ice cream and he told the man who was scooping, “we can have treats once in a while, but I like healthy foods too.” Everything in moderation!
Learn together. If you’ve never gardened, research and plant your first one together! If you’ve never tried a certain kind of food, go to the store with a list in hand, having them help you find all the ingredients, then make it together.
There are so many books you can get from the library about food in general. Here are some of our favorites:
The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar
Eating the Alphabet
Green Eggs and Ham
Tyler Makes Spaghetti
Blueberries for Sal
The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food
The Popcorn Book
The Night Kitchen
If they really don’t like a food, try making it differently next time. Grant doesn’t like eggs unless I fry them and he can “pop” the yolk. It took scrambled, boiled, and omelets first to discover that. Cook things differently. My husband only likes raw carrots, I love them cooked, and my 2-year-old loves them baked in the shape of french fries. I’m absolutely not telling you to cater to everyone like a waitress, but everyone can take turns different nights. It will take patience.
All 3 of my kids have had issues with dairy. Grant absolutely refused any form of milk once I stopped nursing him but he loves yogurt and cottage cheese. My second had a dairy intolerance for so long, except for eggs. I had to give him almond milk but now he will eat all the cheese I put in his tiny hands. It just takes a little work to discover which ways we can manage to get the essential nutrients into our babes.
5. Keep moving.
I’m an advocate for movement and I try to keep my kids active throughout each day. I do some form of exercise myself every morning and encourage them to join me. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t, and sometimes it will just last a few minutes. Different ages enjoy different things, but right now they’re all loving yoga. Some friends told us about Cosmic Kids Yoga, and you’d be hard pressed to find a child who didn’t enjoy that! It combines movement and yoga with story time and play.
When I’m cooking in the kitchen, folding laundry, or cleaning the house, I’ll turn on music and make chore time into dance time. I’m normally just using Pandora for a good variety of music.
Living close to a park can be lucky, but taking walks is nearly always possible. I’ll bring the stroller and the kids take turns resting and getting out to move, depending on the distance. I’m grateful for modern transportation options, but sometimes I wish we lived closer to more things so we could walk more often.
6. Be a good example.
This is possibly the most difficult one. We can talk as much as we want, but children are going to watch us and mimic what they see. Example goes a long way and when it really comes down to it, we shouldn’t expect them to do something we won’t do ourselves. Let them see you eating and enjoying healthy foods. Let them see you being active, enjoying movement and play. Let them see you exercise each day. Teach them through your examples and they’ll want to be just like you.
I hope something here has been of help, though remember to change what is needed to better your family. Do you have any specific tips you’ve found helpful in your home?