The key to encouraging children to make health choices is surprisingly simple – role-model healthy choices yourself! Whilst working with a family as a “Nanny Teacher” I would most often eat a hot lunch with the children. I bought in extra vegetables and sometimes things like quinoa from my home because I’m a bit of a health enthusiast and I wanted to have good quality food with no obligations for the family to provide it. The children soon joked about my “big pile of vegetables!” Just to note that there were other things such as fish and quinoa on my plate too! Then something interesting happened; curiosity got the better of the children. Because I had lots of interesting and different vegetables on my plate (e.g. cavolo nero more commonly known a s black kale, or spinach as well as broccoli, carrots and soya beans etc.) the children were interested in finding out more about them. Because the vegetables were on my plate and they only had more “child friendly” vegetables (carrots broccoli and baby sweet-corn) there was no obligation for them to eat them. Well their curiosity quickly lead to asking for a taste of the intriguing looking vegetables.
In no time they had announced that they “now liked” spinach, beetroot (yes, beetroot) olives – the little girl (2.3 years) would eat olives of her fingers like hula-hoops! They also tried some cavolo nero and asked me whether I could ask their Mum to get quinoa and spelt pasta like me (NB If I did pasta I would cook my spelt pasta separately to the whole-wheat pasta the family ate). I could believe how much their desire for healthy food had increased purely through role-modelling eating it myself.
Another incredibly interesting discovery I made was the children also seemed “inspired” to eat more healthy foods from observing various things I could do. Very early on the little boy (the eldest and 4.2 at the time) remarked; “how come you’re so cleaver?” – Quite a compliment considering his parents are cleaver too. The questions “How come you’re so strong?”, then “How come you’re so fast?” quickly followed. I simply used the opportunity to encourage him to make better, healthier choices. I said; “Because I work hard and eat a lot of vegetables, and fish”. This is a truthful answer as all these things would go towards making me learn more easily and be stronger and faster at running. It also shows him what he needs to do in order to achieve this for himself. Well he definitely quickly developed an interested in making more healthy choices. The fantastic thing about this is that it also holds you accountable to make better, healthier choices for yourself. It’s much easier when you have your children’s best interests as extra motivation.
Expectation also has a lot to do with how health a choice your child will make. If you expect them to at least try a bit of everything, especially if you also role-model this to them; children love doing things they see adults doing, so they are most likely to follow suit. “You get what you expect” therefore, if you expect problems, you’ll get problems, so it’s worth having a good expectation.
One little boy I worked with didn’t like tomatoes. His mother was keen to ensure all vegetables were eaten. What I did was to give him one cherry tomato with other salad bit he really liked (cucumber and carrot sticks). Because it was only one tomato and gone in a mouthful he was able to cope with that. About a month later I increased it to two without saying anything. Then a little while later I increased it to three then four (I stopped at four) when it appeared to me that he would cope. One day when he finally noticed he actually had four tomatoes he said; “hey, I’m only meant to have one?!!” I replied; “Yes, but you like them now don’t you?” He didn’t know what to say, so he happily ate four cherry tomatoes with his salad from then on. Because there was no pressure, yet his taste buds were exposed to a small, regular amount of the tomato, they gradually adapted to the taste without causing him any stress about eating them.
Preparing healthy foods with your child/children is another way to encourage healthy habits. When you do this it’s always great if you can to also shop and buy the ingredients with your child too. This way you can first discuss the ingredients with them and tell them why they are healthy (this is another way of increasing your own knowledge and personal development). It’s not a problem if you’re unable to do that because you can talk about the ingredients whilst you cook. These types of discussions with you child/ children naturally encourage their enthusiasm for the activity. Children enjoy helping adults and doing the things they see adult do so they’re always more willing to try something that they’ve had a hand in preparing. Cooking also provides a multitude of different tasks that support your child’s holistic development (gross/ fine motor development, hand/eye co-ordination and language etc.). Plus, I’ve noticed that children given an explanation, even if it’s brief (and discussing why certain foods are good is the equivalent of an explanation), are always more willing to co-operate.
If you’re concerned that you may find it difficult to say “no” to certain foods that you’d rather you child didn’t eat so much of there is a way of limiting its availability. It does require you to have the will-power to control any “unhealthy habits” you may have yourself. If you only stock up on foods you’re happy for your child to eat then there is nothing temping in the house that they can see/ find to fuss for. As I said, you have to be strong enough and will to do this yourself too otherwise it will not work.
I read recently, that peer pressure discourages picky eaters from being less fussy. Children do like to fit in with their friends and as you will know; children are very honest and will contest anything that they feel isn’t right. I’ve seem peer pressure also encourage good changes such as being less fussy so I know it works. Therefore if your child is a fussy eater invite a child round for tea (regularly if possible) who is a good eater as this will encourage them to be less picky. The more they are able to dine with other children the more effective this becomes. Other children “get away” with saying things that is seen a “nagging” when you say them, so it’s definitely worth creating situations where other children will do the “hard part” for you!
If you’re still concerned about being able to encourage good, healthy eating habits in your children then please get in touch and e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org ; Twitter/ Instagram, @FamilyTeamCoach ; Facebook/ LinkedIn, Paula-Elizabeth Jordan.