10 Tips to Healthier Eating Habits for Kids


As some of you may know, I am on a weight-loss/health journey.  I am currently overweight and have been for pretty much my entire life. That is something I am working on and will be a lifelong struggle. Lots of things contributed to that and one of those things is the poor eating habits of my parents. When I had my own children I vowed to do better.  I am no expert. Not a liscenced nutritionist. Not a personal trainer.  Just a Mom who is doing well (so far) in this area.

 Here are my top 10 tips to raising kids with healthy eating habits.

1. Start early

I have mentioned before that there are certain foods my children have never eaten. Sugar cereal, tang and kool-aid to name a few. Children can't beg for sugar cereal every morning if they don't know what it tastes like. Period. Choose not to buy junky food from the very beginning and your children won't develop a taste for junky foods.

2. If it's too late to 'start early', be honest.
Maybe it's my generation, but I have no problem sitting down with my kids and admitting a mistake. If your family has not been eating as healthily as you want them too and your kids have developed a taste for sugar, fat and salt all is not lost. Sit down with them and have a conversation. Tell them how much you love them and how important it is for them to take care of their bodies. Admit that you should have done better in teaching them, but that now it is going to change so everyone can be more healthy, active and happy. Assure them that nothing too radical is going to happen and give them a chance to ask questions. Ambushing them with a total 180 turn is not a good idea.

3. Don't just eliminate, replace.
Saying you want a fresh start is scary for kids. Resist the urge to eliminate everything even remotely snacky.  They will want to snack and they don't want to make a Chef Salad after school.  Replace as much as you can.  If they complain, explain to them why you chose to replace that snack. Offer to let kids pick their own low fat snacks instead and take a fun trip to the Super Market to choose them.  NOTE:  One thing I have taught my kids to help them in the Supermarket is explain that boxes with cartoon characters, teen stars and toys usually don't have healthy food inside of them.  

Here are some good places to start*:
Goldfish Crackers - Whole Grain Goldfish Crackers
Jello Snacks and Jello Pudding Snacks - Sugar Free Jello Snacks and Jello Pudding Snacks
Peanut Butter - Reduced Fat/Low Sugar Peanut Butter (or natural peanut butter is even better!)
Mayo - Olive Oil Mayo or Veganaise 
Hot Dogs - Hebrew National Reduced Fat Hot Dogs (these won the America's Test Kitchen taste test for low-fat dogs)

*Note: Always check labels. Sometimes companies take away fat and add TONS of sugar instead.  Be aware.We also avoid artificial sweeteners, but that's a personal preference.

4. Get tricky
My Mom once bought a Jif peanut butter jar and then continually re-filled it with "Circus" brand peanut butter while we were asleep. We never knew.  If you have kids that are truly going to fight you at every turn, try her trick.  Shoveling Veganaise into a Mayo jar might just work. Yes, the long term goal is every member of your family making better choices for themselves, but a little deception will get you through short-term.

5. YOU will not be their supplier
Once another Mommy asked me for advice on this exact topic. I mentioned the above recommendations...and then the excuses started. My kids won't eat sugar free Jell-o. I don't want to fight with my kids. My husband doesn't like low-fat mayo. And on and on. She finished with, If I take these foods away from my kids, they'll just go somewhere else and eat them.
Clearly, she didn't actually want my help. But more important is this.  Maybe her kids really would have gone to their friends house and had junk food, but two things would still be clear:

1) They will still be eating half as much, since they were currently eating junk food at her house AND there friend's houses.

2) As a mother, SHE would not be supplying her kids with unhealthy junk food.

I am teaching my kids as best I can not to smoke cigarettes. But someday they may choose to smoke. If that happens, will I ever buy them cigarettes? Nope. Never.  And you probably wouldn't either. So why is it okay for us to supply our kids with copious amounts of red dye no. 5,  salt, sugar and fat?  In my opinion, it's not.  Those things can kill your child just as surely as cigarettes might.

If it helps you, think of your family's food choices as your supplying them with fuel. And the quality of that fuel leads to their health.  Yes, eventually my kids have tasted these things at other people's homes, but in their world of our home they do not exist. I hope this makes those items compartmentalized in their minds. I don't freak out if they drink kool-aid at Billy's house. It's gunna happen and it's okay. But YOU are not the supplier and that's a big deal.

6. Don't reward with food
Now we tackle some of the psychology of healthy eating habits.  Try not to reward your children with food.  I have successfully potty trained two kids (so far) without using even one M&M or other food treat.  Linking good behavior with a food reward (especially candy or other junk food) is a dangerous precedent.  Even healthy foods should not be linked to good behavior or achievement.  Start a new tradition of rewarding children in other ways.  

Some suggestions:  a special family activity that also happens to be active like swimming, bowling, tennis or soccer in the park.  Maybe an art night with finger painting or clay.  If you want to tie it to an item try purchasing a new book from the book store (brains need exercise too!).  When we potty trained our fist two kids we used a crazy, rowdy fight song to praise their milestones. They LOVED it!

7. Snack Trays
Once weekly we go to our local Amish Farmer's Market and I purchase heaps and heaps of fresh fruits and veggies.  When we were a family of four I spent roughly $20 per week on these items.  I purchased two inexpensive snack trays from Wal*Mart, once for fruits and one for veggies.

When I get home from the market I wash and chop all of the produce and arrange it in the two trays. These are our snack trays. My children know that any time and every time they want a snack they may eat anything they want from either tray.  No limits. No rules. While I'm prepping dinner if my kids are getting antsy waiting I set out the trays. The trays also make an appearance at every meal.  You will be surprised at how well this works.  For fun each week I filled each tray with their favorites and one new item. This was how my kids discovered that they loved romanesco and snow peas as well as star fruit.

8. Eat a Rainbow
This past New Years Eve the kids and I headed to the grocery store with the special task of creating a rainbow dinner.  I was feeling icky and gross from holidays filled with treats, sugar and hefty meals.  We had great fun on our scavenger hunt around the store and it wasn't long before our kids discovered that the bulk of Roy G. Biv existed in the produce department.  We ended up eating a feast of tacos.  Red = diced tomatoes, Orange = low fat cheddar cheese, Yellow = corn shells, Green = Lettuce, Blue = fresh blueberries, Purple = red grapes and brown = ground turkey/beef mixture (more on that in the next tip!). Of course, when we actually ate our kids wanted to be sure to include the entire rainbow on each taco, therefore leading them to add lettuce (which they abhor on tacos).  I plan on eating a rainbow dinner again with a completely different menu.

9. Mix it In
Every time I make pasta (even when using a jarred marinara sauce) I mix in a handful of frozen, chopped spinach.  My kids hate spinach. But they have never noticed it in the pasta sauce. Try adding frozen peas to too hot soups to cool them down.  I always add frozen peas to macaroni and cheese (it worked for a few years, but not anymore...but a few years is good!).

If you want to go full boar you can pick up "Deceptively Delicious" by Jessica Seinfeld.  Also, when I buy ground beef I also buy lean ground turkey. I mix them 50/50 and my kids have never noticed.  If your kids do notice try 75/25 first.  Also, try making your own bread and slowly replacing some of the white flour with wheat flour.  Over time they should adjust. When you get to the point when they do notice back it up to the last step and stay there. every little bit helps!

10. Have FUN!
Arranging fruits and veggies into a rainbow,  on a fancy plate or onto one of the cute food face plates they have now may encourage your kids to eat up!  Presentation (especially when it includes fun) really makes a difference with kids.   I once got my kids to eat hummus (which they had both turned their noses up at) by leading them in screaming "OPA!" after each bite, since hummus is Greek in origin. Here are some mini veggie pizzas we make with our kids. They love creating little faces and then gobbling them up while shrieking "Oh NO! Don't eat me!"
In tomorrow's post I will share our favorite healthy food products, 
healthy food blogs and recipes in the fight to eat healthy!


Anonymous said...

These are some great ideas. I like the not rewarding with food. I started doing that in my classroom. This year I would like to get away from that. It goes against everything I try to instill in my students about eating healthy.

Casey said...

Not using food as a reward is foundational to teaching kids to have a healthy relationship with food. Thanks for writing about this and you may enjoy reading my blog post on raising healthy kids: http://www.thelunchtray.com/tlt-guest-blogger-casey-hinds-you-dont-have-to-be-a-pilot-to-raise-healthy-children-but-it-helps/

Jenny said...

I like the idea of the fruit & veggie trays!