- 1. Then: We were given a full plate and asked to finish it. Because we should not waste food.
- Now: Offer a serving of each food. Once the child eats that, ask if she wants some more. Serve the right amount of food as far as possible, or cover and store for later.
- 2. Then: Telling the child she’s a good eater.
- Now: Rather than label, encourage.
- 3. Then: Calling your child picky about food.
- Now: No labels, please, as I said earlier. Instead, encourage your child to try new things without forcing.
- 4. Then: Your child says she is not hungry. Tell her to finish what’s on her plate anyway.
- Now: Stop to think why she’s not hungry. Did she have a snack too close to mealtime?
- 5. Then: Dessert was a reward. If you are a good girl, you get ice-cream.
- Now: Just teach kids to respect others and be kind and courteous. Food need not enter the bribery equation.
- 6. Then: If you finish your salad, I’ll give you a chocolate.
- Now: Make house rules. A healthy meal followed by dessert on specific days.
- 7. Then: Obsess over your child’s fussy eating habits. And rant about it all the time.
- Now: Oh, chill! Instead, talk to a close friend if you need to vent.
- 8. Then: Force your kids to eat foods they don’t like.
- Now: Get into the whys.
- 9. Then: Finish your plate, or else!
- Now: Be more flexible. Talk to your child. Ask her to name one food she really can’t stand. Give it a pass.
- 10. Then: Compare your children. “A is a (complimentary) but B is (not complimentary)!”
- Now: Do. Not. Compare. Ever. Comparison is the thief of joy and leads to unhealthy competition.
- 11. Then: Cook dinner and order kids to eat it.
- Now: Involve your kids in the planning. Let them help you cook.
How to raise healthy eaters is one of the hottest topics among parents. During my son’s school days, in my interactions with other parents, their most common complaints was about their children’s eating habits. Of course, everyone wanted to raise healthy kids with eating habits to match. Every parent wants to feed the family foods that are not just nutritious—but foods that the family enjoys and looks forward to meal times. And that’s not really the Holy Grail.
I know that as a busy parent trying to do the right thing, I did follow a lot of what my own folks did with me during my childhood—and quite likely they followed what was passed on to them by their parents. Old school methods—many of which are still in force in the family.
But you know what? Along the way, we’ve modified quite a few of these old school methods to come up with better ways to raise healthy eaters. Some, thanks to our own little hero and some, while brainstorming with other parents when they shared their own woes about their picky eaters.
Parents often have a tough time setting rules for meal time, dealing with the demand for sugar at odd times, and so on. I know one family that only began cooking at 10 p.m. and I often wondered when they finally got to bed and how they managed—the kids had to be in school by 7 a.m.
Oh, we had tight rules in place thanks to my Mom, who was a school teacher and believed in a disciplined routine. And the truth is, if we want to avoid tackling major health issues like obesity, extreme dieting, eating disorders and similar, I’d say it is important to review any present approach that’s not working.
If we want to raise healthy eaters, the first thing to do is stop and look at whether what worked for us during our childhood is indeed effective for our kids today. Maybe some of those rituals and rules need to be modified to encourage healthy eating habits and attitudes around food.
Here’s what we came up with—old school vs. a better way to raise healthy eaters. Let’s call them “then” and “now.”
1. Then: We were given a full plate and asked to finish it. Because we should not waste food.
Now: Offer a serving of each food. Once the child eats that, ask if she wants some more. Serve the right amount of food as far as possible, or cover and store for later.
Why it works:
Our parents insisted we clean our plate before we could have dessert or leave the table. Probably worked. But then, what sense does it make to serve someone the amount of food we feel they must eat? Imagine someone in authority insisted you ate what was placed in front of you or else you would be deprived of something you wanted afterwards.
Starting with small portions actually works because it is less intimidating. There’s the option for seconds, making mealtimes a positive experience where the child understands that she has more choices. This worked for me and I suggest it as a strategy to raise healthy eaters.
And no, food must not be wasted. But not everyone is hungry all the time. Maybe they have a tummy ache. Bathroom troubles. Or maybe they just ate something not long before the mealtime and are not ready for the meal.
Forcing them to eat their full meal can convey the message that we know their bodies better than they do. This is not true. Also, we could be telling them they are not in control of themselves, leading to a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence in the long term. When others control our food intake, it may lead to eating disorders and unhealthy habits.
I remember one Mom would force her kid to eat everything on her plate. The child would stuff food in her mouth and then pretending to drink water, just release the food into the glass. Gross, I know. True story though.
So, best be courteous and flexible and allow them to decide. Pack the food up and store it for later.
2. Then: Telling the child she’s a good eater.
Now: Rather than label, encourage.
Better: Encourage rather than label. “Mmm, this tastes good. It’s fun to try new foods together, isn’t it!”
Why it works:
When we label kids, we restrict them, forcing them to build a set of expectations about themselves. Just as this applies to school, sports and other aspects of regular life, it also applies to food.
Let us not label kids as picky or good eaters and other words we end up using when we’re frustrated about getting the kid to eat properly. Because of course we regret it later.
But what if my child is a fussy eater? (Sorry! I said fussy only for the purpose of discussion). Try and be positive without going overboard. Talk about how certain foods are good for us and why. I remember I loved spinach only because I was convinced it was good for my eyes. Be enthusiastic about a flavor both you and your child enjoy. Or just smile and say… nothing. I did that sometimes.
3. Then: Calling your child picky about food.
Now: No labels, please, as I said earlier. Instead, encourage your child to try new things without forcing.
Why it works:
If there’s one evergreen topic for parents when they get together, it is about how their kids are picky eaters. And what is the worst thing one can do? Make a sad situation worse by highlighting the situation, thus adding insult to injury.
I don’t know if you have noticed this, but kids do tend to become what we say they are by actually playing out the behavior or action they think defines them. So, if your child is not a fan of some flavors or textures of food, don’t focus on the fact and make the problem worse.
Instead, here’s what might work to raise healthy eaters. If your child is fussy at mealtimes, stop the criticism. Offer choices of different types of healthy foods. Your child can then tell you which ones she likes and why. Also, cut back on serving the foods she does not like. It may be just a phase the child is going through. Then slowly reintroduce the food, perhaps with different recipes. I remember I wasn’t a fan of eggplant as a child. Then, years later, it suddenly became my favorite because of a dish I tasted and continues to be.
4. Then: Your child says she is not hungry. Tell her to finish what’s on her plate anyway.
Now: Stop to think why she’s not hungry. Did she have a snack too close to mealtime?
Why it works:
We have plenty of food choices in the course of a day. And let’s face it, as parents, we do go about our daily routine stocked with snacks available to our kids. Not surprising that by the time it is dinner time, the kids aren’t that hungry. Also, snacks, if they are not so healthy choices, might seem tastier. I’m guilty of going through that phase. I phased out packaged stuff and stocked healthier snacks, in addition to serving healthier meals. Can be tough, I admit, but it gets easier over time. Also, change snack timings to raise healthy eaters.
5. Then: Dessert was a reward. If you are a good girl, you get ice-cream.
Now: Just teach kids to respect others and be kind and courteous. Food need not enter the bribery equation.
Which parent is not guilty of bribery and rewards to try and get their kids to follow the rules? Isn’t that a better option than nagging or making empty threats?
Not really. If you grew up in a family that used food as incentive for good behavior, then it is time to scrap that parenting pattern if we really want to raise healthy eaters. We do NOT want to cultivate a mindset around food that implies that every time we do the right thing, we deserve a food treat. Can you imagine how this could lead to a host of other chronic health issues and contribute to the growing diabetes epidemic? Let’s break the cycle.
6. Then: If you finish your salad, I’ll give you a chocolate.
Now: Make house rules. A healthy meal followed by dessert on specific days.
Why it works:
Linked to the previous point, as you can see, using treats as a bribe is a bad idea. When food is a reward for good behavior, it sends the wrong message. Why teach our kids that compliance equals instant gratification? Why, instead of doing something good for the sake of doing good, make them manipulative towards others? “I won’t do this until you give me that” – nasty ring to it, right?
When we take the bribe-based approach to discipline, our children will never understand why it is important to follow rules. They won’t understand why they should treat others with kindness and do certain things even if they don’t want to right away, but are good for them in the long run. So explain the why behind your rules, and then, enforce them kindly but firmly.
7. Then: Obsess over your child’s fussy eating habits. And rant about it all the time.
Now: Oh, chill! Instead, talk to a close friend if you need to vent.
Why it works:
Talking about our kids’ problems all the time, especially in front of them, makes them self-conscious and maybe embarrassed. And with food struggles, there’s a good chance of seeing eating disorders developing later in life based on the feeling of wanting control over something.
Also, too much attention on a single issue puts it under the magnifying glass, blowing it out of proportion. Maybe your child is going through a tough phase with eating. So why not just back off a bit and take the focus away from it. Rather than nag your kid, take the cause-and-effect route.
“Eating your vegetables helps your body fight germs better.”
No need for a long lecture. Just a simple explanation, enforcing the rules kindly but firmly, teaching your kid to be better. You are more likely to raise healthy eaters this way.
8. Then: Force your kids to eat foods they don’t like.
Now: Get into the whys.
Why it works:
Is it the texture they don’t like? Swap it with something equally healthy.
Truth is, even your eager eater can go through a phase when a certain food or foods no longer appeals to them. So if your child has been more or less enthusiastic about eating what you expect them to so far, why not let them have their way? Why force them to eat what they don’t like?
Sometimes, the reason why a certain food turns them off could be sensory—too strong tasting, bitter, spicy. Or maybe it is the texture. If your child expresses a strong dislike, talk to them about why they don’t like it so you can understand it. And maybe not serve them that food for a while.
There’s yet another possibility—maybe your child wants to have some control over some aspect of her life. In their minds, food is easy to manage, unlike other issues such as whether they should attend school or go to a friend’s place for the vacation. If you are a patient parent, you may go easy on the pressure. You will soon see your child getting over her dislike for the particular food.
9. Then: Finish your plate, or else!
Now: Be more flexible. Talk to your child. Ask her to name one food she really can’t stand. Give it a pass.
Why it works:
The easy solution to this is lay down some ground rules. And when you make the rules, discuss it with your kids and ask for feedback. Ask them what they like, what they don’t like.
To make sure everyone cooperates around eating healthy foods that are good for them is to have kids name one food they definitely don’t like. Then, have them substitute it with something more enjoyable that is good for them. Win-win-ish. After some time, it is likely they will get over their dislike for that food. Try reintroducing this food later down the road. Or prepare it in a different, more appealing way.
10. Then: Compare your children. “A is a (complimentary) but B is (not complimentary)!”
Now: Do. Not. Compare. Ever. Comparison is the thief of joy and leads to unhealthy competition.
Why it works:
Comparing two children is the worst thing ever. Yes, I know we do it sometimes especially when kids from the same family are so different from each other. It can be difficult to come to terms with.
But here is the thing. Everybody is different even if they are from the same two parents. And with something like food – making tough rules can create havoc on a child’s attitude towards food and eating. When we want to raise healthy eaters, the old school method can mess things up and even worse, turn your kids into a bunch of rebels.
11. Then: Cook dinner and order kids to eat it.
Now: Involve your kids in the planning. Let them help you cook.
Why it works:
This is something my son taught me. One innocent question was all it took. “Can I help?”. He was three years old. He would be so proud of anything he did that he made it easy for us to get him to eat healthy. He loved stories and that helped too. So, we simply made up stories about the food and good habits.
Kids love to chop, stir, clear up. They love to participate. They enjoy being involved in the selection, preparation and presentation of a meal. It makes their contribution feel valuable. And while they’re at it, you will be teaching them life skills. I can tell you that I started cooking a range of dishes and experimented thanks to my son. Yeah, we made chocolate pizza. Also, it is fun.
Ultimately, to raise healthy eaters, we must cultivate a healthy mindset about food and eating.
What do you say? I’d like to know what you think. Do share your tips to raise healthy eaters!