One of my goals as a parent is to raise kids who enjoy food and for whom eating in a healthy way is second nature. And though I’m a nutrition expert, even I am sometimes overwhelmed by this daunting responsibility. The problem I face is simple, really: my children are not mindless automatons. Despite my fancy nutrition degree and years of experience, I can’t just snap my fingers and make them like the foods I like, eat the things I want them to eat, and make good choices when they aren’t with me.
Instead I have to teach them. (Sigh.)
So I teach by example – I eat lots of vegetables, I eschew junky crap and go for homemade goodness, I shop at the farmers market and fill our house with fresh whole foods. I also talk with my kids about food and my food values: “I have had enough – I’m going to stop now”, “I like this one because it doesn’t have food coloring”, “I love when summer comes and we get to enjoy fresh tomatoes again”, etc.
And I can hardly believe it, but it appears that they are paying attention!
Playing restaurant the other day my little one (age 3) told her patron that he had to eat his healthy food first before picking out dessert. And my older one instructed the customer to choose a “side dish”, not just a meat. Then there was the time that I overheard the 6 year old explaining to his sister that fruit snacks are “not really fruit.” Instead, he explained, “they are mostly sugar…and butter.” (Well, he didn’t quite have the details right, but he had gotten the point.) And recently he and I negotiated a deal wherein I agreed I would buy a “junky cereal” (Lucky Charms, Lord help me) after he suggested that he wouldn’t eat it for breakfast, only for dessert, and not all the time, because it’s a “sometimes food”.
Not to gloat, but it’s really gratifying when they show me that the messages are getting through. And of course there are plenty of occasions when they act like, well, normal kids – they pick the nasty blue ice cream at the ice cream parlor, they whine when the vegetable is Brussels sprouts, they complain that we never eat at Pizza Hut. But in those moments I try not to react in a negative way (lest they learn that these are good ways to shock and annoy me) and instead I think about the times when they’ve given me hope that my positive teaching is having an effect.
And all this talk about setting examples and educating doesn’t diminish the fact that sometimes as parents we do need to dictate how it’s going to be – “No candy for breakfast”, “This is the only dinner you’re going to get tonight so eat it”, “Get that carrot out of your nose,” etc. But just barking orders and being rigid isn’t a strategy that will work for the long haul.
So, I suggest that though it may feel sometimes like a futile effort, and certainly can be emotionally and mentally trying at times, if you teach your children, they will, in the end, be well.