The Importance of Eating Healthy as a Youngster
It’s no surprise that the world we live in is hectic and full of distractions; work, band recitals, soccer practice, PTA meetings, there’s just no let-up it seems. As parents, that can mean a lot of short cuts and substitutions. One of the first things to often get sacrificed on the altar of time-management is our meals. Whether we toss a couple of waffles in the toaster for breakfast, stuff a few bucks in our kid’s pocket for what can often be a horrible school lunch, or we swing by a family favorite fast food or pizza joint for dinner on our way home, what we eat can be a toss of the dice.
In addition to a world of frenzy, we also live in a world of information; and a ton of that information has come in the form of scientific research on the link between childhood eating habits and a number of health problems later in life. Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression are just a few of the many life threatening medical maladies that can be in part attributed to an individual’s dietary decisions.
Children grow up to reflect their upbringing in many ways, not the least of which being their food choices; after all, a child isn’t born with a craving for a Whopper or a coke. As parents, we have the ability to not only shape the dietary choices of our children while they are young, but that influence can carry on into later years when they have more autonomy over their food choices. So it’s no exaggeration to say that by starting them off at an early age by introducing them to a variety of healthy food options, they will more inclined to choose those foods as they age, thus decreasing the chances of health problems later in life.
Of course, this all sounds easier than it can be sometimes, and anyone who has ever tried to get their toddler to try a new vegetable may be wondering what the secret is. The truth is, there is no magic trick to getting your little one to embrace a healthy diet, but there are some things that you can try to up your odds.
Be a Good Role Model
It seems like most good parenting strategies include being a proper example, and for good reason. When you choose healthy food options, such as balanced meals, not only are you practicing “self-care” (which is a point I try to make again and again to parents), you’re showing your children that healthy eating isn’t just something that “kids have to do”, like going to bed at 8:00 p.m. Long before your child becomes obsessed with Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, you’re going to be their first hero. By looking after yourself and making healthy choices, they’re going to see how important that it is.
Dial Back the Portions
If you’re ever looking for some obscure trivia subject to explore, dig into the continuous expansion of the American dinner plate. If you have ever inherited a set of dishes from your grandparents or even great-grandparents, you may notice that they were significantly smaller than most of the ones you’ll find in stores today.
As a culture we have increased the size of our portions more and more each generation. This is one of the leading causes of America’s growing obesity issue. Another problem is the classic dinner-time tactic of making sure kids clean their plates. But making your child clean their plate implies that you are educated on exactly what size portion they should be eating for their age, sex, size, activity level, and a bunch of other factors.
Perhaps you do possess that ability, I’m almost certain some people out there can do it. For the rest of us lay-persons however, it can be best to prepare a balanced meal and let our child’s stomach determine when they are full. If you keep the snacks down (both before and after dinner), and their activity up enough, the odds are in your favor that they’re going to eat as much as their body needs to at dinner time.
Cook at Home as Much as Possible
This one can hit a nerve with some people. Yes, I know that you’re busy, maybe not exactly how busy, but I am confident in assuming that you are. Sometimes coming home in time to get a healthy meal on the table is just not possible. It is important however to ensure that when it is possible, you strive to do it.
Fast food isn’t just loaded with harmful preservatives and trans fats, it’s also loaded with stuff that makes you crave it. This means that your mind is planning your next greasy cheeseburger before you’ve even finished the one in your hand. Additionally, fast food is devoid of nutritional value to a substantial extent.
There’s nothing wrong with stopping by a fast food joint and getting some guilty pleasure for the family now and then, but if it feels less like a treat and more like a “Tuesday” to your family, it’s time to reconsider your family’s diet plan. Things like slow cookers and croc pots make it possible to prep your dinner in the morning or even the night before and have it waiting for you when you get home. The sky’s the limit when you commit to your family eating healthy.
Don’t Underestimate the Snacks
I spent a portion of my life training folks to pass one of the US Army’s most physically demanding schools. With every group, the conversation about snacks would eventually find its way to the surface.
What I found was that many people either ate relatively healthy, or were at least able to adopt a healthier diet, but sabotaged it all with their mid-meal snacks. For the sake of brevity, I got to the point of just saying that if it came in a plastic wrapper, despite it “real fruit” claims or any others, just avoid it.
I’ve somewhat dialed that perspective back a little; there are a number of healthy snack options that come in a wrapper. But as a personal rule, my mid-meal snacks usually consist of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Instead of popping a Red Bull or other energy drink for those 2:00 in the afternoon slumps, try an orange or green apple for a pick-me-up. The same goes for your kids.
When they burst through the door after school, if there’s boxes of sugary snacks in the cupboard, that’s what they’re going to grab. Instead, have some mixed fruit options available to not only give their systems some pep, but without the heavy sugars and preservatives that can play havoc with hormones and metabolisms.
I’m convinced that people hate coming to our house. When they do, they’ve learned to bring their own drinks with them. We simply don’t have much in our fridge to drink aside from some almond milk, organic fruit punch, and maybe some orange juice more often than not.
Proper hydration deserves its own article in and of itself, but suffice to say that its important. Not only does being properly hydrated help your bodies cognitive function, metabolism and digestion, and thermal regulation (to name a few), when your body is dehydrated it can actual send that signal in the form of being hungry. This can lead to disrupted meal patterns and even binge eating, and all with a digestive system operating at poor capacity.
Encourage your kids to drink plenty of water. For every glass of juice or milk, they should have had one or two glasses of water in between. None of this is to say totally ban drinks like soda or Gatorades (which are high in sugar), we just reserve them for the occasions that we go out to dinner or a similar exception.
This also does not mean “forced hydration”, you never want to force your child to drink an excessive amount of water in one sitting. For further reading on this subject look into “hypernatremia”, which is when over-hydration can dilute the bodies micronutrient and mineral content.
Involve your Children in Cooking
A fantastic way to get kids enthused about a healthier diet is by including them in the meal preparation. The good news is that when you cook foods from scratch and with plenty of organic ingredients, there’s plenty of tasks for them to do.
Washing fruits and veggies, measuring spices and seasonings, cracking eggs, the list goes on. Our boys both have their own monogrammed aprons that we got them so they feel extra special when they help.
When kids sit down to eat a meal that they helped prepare, it’s almost criminal how easy it is to get them to eat it!
If you’re just starting out on the road to getting your families meal time habits on a healthier track, ease into it. Change can be upsetting to anyone, kids notwithstanding. Rather than storming into the kitchen and tossing out all the family favorites, opt to make subtle changes to the menu.
The good news is that even minor changes can have huge impacts over time, so don’t feel that you need to rush it. Step back and look at the meal time norms for your family and prioritize what needs changing. Which is doing more damage, the 2-liter bottle of dark soda or the bag of potato chips?
Dump the soda quietly down the drain and save it for special occasions, the stuff is the equivalent of sugary poison. After a while your family will stop wonder whatever happened to the soda and you’ll be ready to make another minor change.
Educate Yourself, Then Educate Them
Maybe we should have started with this one, but it’s better late than never, right? Somewhere between “blind consumer” and “licensed nutritionist” is the Goldilocks of a healthy shopper.
It’s helpful to learn and understand what those ingredients mean on your food wrappers. Understanding the difference between the various types of fats, sugars, grains, and other things can help you make healthy choices for your family when you’re at the grocery store.
There are a ton of web sites that break these different ingredients down into very easy to understand terms, and also offer healthy alternatives to common ingredients you’ll find in many recipes.
Keep Them Active
It might seem unorthodox to be talking about being active on a healthy diet discussion, but hear me out. The more active your children are, the more of a regular appetite schedule they will have. Children, like adults, can be guilty of snacking out of boredom, so the more your child sits around the more likely they are to raid the cupboards. Additionally, if they are playing organized sports or a similar activity, it’ll be much easier for you to convince them of the link between a healthy diet and physical performance.
So, are you ready to throw out everything in your kitchen that isn’t kale and avocados? Probably (hopefully) not. Getting your family to eat healthy doesn’t have to involve overly drastic lifestyle changes. For some it could mean rather significant changes to how food is shopped for or prepared, but the key is to do it in baby steps. Pick an individual meal, such as breakfast, and start there.
After a few weeks of cleaning up breakfast for the family by kicking the Cocoa Puffs and embracing whole grains and fruits, move on to something else. Its perfectly okay to still enjoy some treats (or cheats) now and then, but they should feel that way, not feel like the norm. As your children grow up with these types of meals as normal, not only will they be healthier and happier, they’ll be at reduced risk of many health problems later in life.