Every time that I start to stress about J and M’s eating habits, I remind myself of our parenting goal: Healthy, happy, whole adults.
Of course I want our children to have a healthy diet in the here and now, but it’s far more important to me that they be equipped to make good food choices even when I’m not around. I’ve taken three basic approaches that have worked for us:
- Educating our daughters on what makes up a balanced diet, and how different foods contribute to their healthy growth.
- Including them in food purchase and preparation decisions and activities.
- Demonstrating that listening to their bodies is valuable and taking a non-combative approach to food.
I keep meaning to copy a friend’s brilliant idea of displaying the USDA food guidelines—the old pyramid, or the new plate—on the refrigerator.
Even though we don’t have the picture up, we have always talked about meals in terms of needing a protein, a fruit or veggie, and a starch. We’ve also talked about the need for dairy, but since the girls drink milk morning and night, I haven’t required that they include dairy in every meal. I try to keep my explanations of why food choices are important accurate, but simple. We need protein for strong muscles. Fruits and vegetables help our bodies fight germs, and help us with healthy skin, hair, eyes and nails. We need carbohydrates from energy. Milk products help our bones be strong. Our body needs some fat so that it can get all the goodness out of other foods, but too much can be unhealthy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with sweet or fatty foods, but they are just for flavour, rather than nutrition. I’ve rarely turned down the girls’ requests for sweets, because they ask for very reasonable portions: a cookie or a single piece of chocolate.
Our whole family enjoys food: eating it, preparing and cooking it, even playing with it. If only mine wasn’t the Great Black Thumb, we might enjoy growing it. The kitchen is the heart of our home; I’m old-school like that. It should come as no surprise that our daughters have always been welcome in the kitchen.
My husband may have shortened my life by a year or two by placing our infants in their bouncy seats on the kitchen counter while he cooked. In retrospect, though, I’m glad we’ve always had them with us. Once they could sit, I’d pull the girls’ highchairs into the kitchen, and give them each a plastic bowl and spoon to bang while I made our meals. When I had cleanup time on my hands, they would help me stir. If I needed to get my hands dirty, J and M could splash their hands in the bubble-filled kitchen sink.
As they approached age 2.5, M and J could be trusted not to put everything in their mouths, so their kitchen repertoire broadened significantly. They could help me measure out ingredients, even plan meals. I’d let them choose between fish and chicken, for example, or rice and couscous. Another great option was chef’s salad. I’d chop up lunchmeat and cheese, boil some eggs, grill some croutons, and present a selection of vegetables. As long as they included some of each food group, they were good. It’s easy to do the same with sandwiches, too. We baked cookies and muffins, too, but that was more of a game.
Now, at 5, J and M often help me plan our weekly grocery list. M recently observed that lasagne is a balanced meal in itself. J refused dessert at lunch yesterday because she was full. She knew there would be another ice cream opportunity soon enough. The girls came home from daycare recently telling me that they had been given soda at school. (Let me tell you that we’re not going back to that center.) They were as horrified as I was, but confessed that the cola was “sweet and yummy.” I told them that soda was a sweet treat, and they could have some when I did, a couple of times a month. There was no argument.
When the girls are full, we let them leave the table. If they’re not hungry, they don’t have to eat. They know that they won’t get anything until the next snack or meal. My husband and I both fight the urge to nag at them to eat more or clear their plates. I think it’s a natural parental impulse. We just have to keep reminding ourself that we want our daughters to stay as healthy, happy and whole as they are now.
How do you include your children in the kitchen?