How can we make healthy meals happy ones? Win your kids to healthy foods through their heads as well as their hearts.
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We’ve all had it happen to us. We prepare delicious, healthy meals, full of nourishing ingredients and seasoned with “Mom love”. One child decides he doesn’t like what you’re serving. He doesn’t like it that you require him to finish nine bites. Total.
He doesn’t like it that his sister pleads with him not to gag on it.
None of us like it when he decides he just can’t eat fried rice with a piece of spinach in it. And gags on it.
Yes, that really happened. Once upon a time.
While I did not pull a Mommy Dearest, I was admittedly not at my best in that moment. Before you pull out your Child Development 101 on me and tell me that I can’t win the food wars, let me just say: Don’t.
I think there are extremes in every case. There are parents who let their kids eat chicken nuggets at every meal and there are parents who are food tyrants. I fall somewhere in between. We had an off night and that is going to happen to all of us. We had a big talk and cuddle about it ten minutes later and all was well.
But, it still taught me a lot.
Healthy meals are no good if they aren’t (mostly) happy ones.
I’m also thankful that this is the same kid who has come to the conclusion that he doesn’t really like junk food as much as he once did. [Fist pump!]
He got a bit weepy about it when he said,
I just have such good memories of those foods. I’m going to miss them.
This is exactly what food manufacturers build on: our experiences. There is a reason that boxed cheese and cracker meals look so cool. There is a reason that yogurt is dyed a nuclear color. There is a reason that certain fast food meals come in brightly colored boxes with junky toys the kid couldn’t care less about two hours later.
Junk foods are fun.
Michael Moss explores this marketing strategy in detail in his book, Salt, Sugar, Fat. I finally broke down and bought a digital copy of it. When you’ve checked out a book four times from the library and are still digesting it, when the kids are messing with your Kindle bookmarks because they are reading it, too, when your husband is asking questions and taking credit for your reading since he heard it first on Michael Medved, it’s time to just add the darn thing to your library!
It’s a fascinating read. It won’t freak you out. It’s not written to be gross or turn you off all food for the rest of your life. It’s just really good research about why you buy what you buy even if you don’t know why you do it.
And one of those reasons is because it makes you happy.
We buy junk food or fast food or foods that we know we could do better ourselves in part because we have fond memories or associations with them. My childhood memories are linked to food: carnitas soft tacos at Olvera Street; Dodger Dogs, peanuts, and a chocolate malt at Dodger Stadium; a Butter Pecan Ice Cream cone from Thrifty’s. I would eat each one of those items in a heart beat because they evoke a happy time in my life, though they might clog my arteries.
Some of us are more apt to associate food with special times. Throughout our sugar fast, I found myself wanting to reward my kids for their good attitudes. Many times, my first inclination is to buy them “a treat” at the grocery store. Fun and happy times are linked to food, particularly junky food.
(Yes, I know. I have parenting/food issues to work through.)
That’s kinda what I’m saying actually. This is something to work through together with our kids. If we’re to equip them to eat better diets and enjoy healthy meals, we need to appeal to their hearts as well as their heads.
Here’s how I’m attempting some reforms:
1. Offering freedom of choice
While I think it’s important not to wimp out and let kids eat “whatever,” I think choices are important. The aforementioned FishBoy and I have since had discussions about how he can try new foods and not gag; how he can have some choices and control, but also not wimp out himself on foods that are new to him.
It’s an ongoing process of learning together.
2. Including kids in the process
My kids have always loved helping in the kitchen. From making homemade tortillas with Papa or helping me make pizzas and pancakes, cooking has always been a family affair. Now that we’re incorporating healthier options, I hope that we’re increasing the kids’ repertoire of preparing healthier foods for themselves.
In any event, I hope that they know how to cook when they leave home.
3. Growing independence
Now that they’re getting bigger, the kids are able to make more things on their own without my help. FishChick9 started using the bread machine when she was 7 and this past summer was seriously considered for casting in Kids Baking Championship. FishBoy19 was using the juicer on his own three years ago and continues to cook many of his meals himself and pack a lunch for college days. The others are growing in their independence and ability to prepare food for themselves.
If I stock healthy options, they will make healthy choices, because eventually that’s all there will be in the house! And they will make healthy meals on their own.
4. Making healthy treats
Our sugar fast was so eye-opening. While we’ve gone back to more or less “normal” eating, we’ve found that we can do without sugar a lot more than we thought we could. I’ve found brands of cereal or bread with no added sugar as well as figured out a regular menu that really works for us. For the long haul.
I’ve also found ways to make healthy “treats” so we can enjoy something sweet once in awhile. While we probably can’t sustain the no-sugar added thing forever, I think has changed some of our regular habits.
4. Adding a fun factor to food
My big boys held a breakfast cookout with the neighbor kids. Since they are history buffs, they cooked biscuits and grilled bacon and made all kinds of weird 19th century food together.
The kids have also enjoyed our occasional games of Chopped for Kids. The 12 and under crowd looks forward to this activity and gets super creative with it. Since I choose what ingredients they have to work with, I can sorta control things, but they get the freedom of choice, as long as they will eat what they prepare.
Those are kinda big things, but something as small as pulling out the sword toothpicks brightens up a simple lunch. You would have thought I had given them the world!
I am still learning how this healthy eating thing works for myself. For the record, I was usually the last kid at the table in our home growing up. I just didn’t want to eat what was in front of me. My regular menu in high school was a Snickers bar, Coke, and two Big Macs. For all intents and purposes, I was the junk food junkie. My kids know this about me. They also know that I want to change.
For some reason, I’ve been able to change some of my ways. I’m hoping that my kids will love and embrace the new ways as well. Sure, I’m making mistakes, but there we’re seeing some good things along the way.
May all your healthy meals be happy ones!
This post is part of a larger series on how to improve your family’s diet.
Up next: how to eat better on a budget.
Originally published March 25, 2014. Updated September 17, 2016.