Feeding Children: Palatable Strategies for Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood

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Whether you’re an Omaha parent or the First Lady of the United States, it has become all too clear that childhood obesity is a large and growing problem that warrants it’s current spot at the top of our collective parenting priority lists (not to mention our country’s). Sure, there are some bigger-picture issues at stake here than whether or not you are successful in your attempts to get your child to eat green vegetables. And yes – it can easily seem like some of the root causes of the obesity epidemic fall far outside of our parental control – from the multi-billion dollar a year business of marketing unhealthy foods to children to the concerning inadequacies of lunch programs and drastically cut physical education activities in schools. In other words, we have our work cut out for us.

I remain convinced, however, that as parents, we all still have the ability to significantly shape our children’s eating habits, teach them an healthier approach to food, and ultimately impact their overall health and nutrition. I don’t hold any misperceptions about the fact that it will take quite a bit of parental effort and commitment. But it’s well worth the effort.

Okay, so I imagine that very few, if any, parents would disagree with me thus far. And there’s certainly a cornucopia of nutrition resources out there custom-designed to make it exceedingly easy to figure out exactly how much calcium or vitamin D your child needs in any given day, what types of fats to avoid, and even how to serve your child’s nutrition up on a proportionally pleasing plate.

The problem is that few things are harder than getting a child to open his mouth when he doesn’t want to. Instilling healthy eating habits in our children isn’t just about knowing what we should be serving our kids – an admittedly very important first step in the right direction – but figuring out how to get them to play along. In other words, it’s one thing to know what it is we’re supposed to be doing and feeding our children. It’s altogether another to know how to go about doing it.

And that’s why I want to share with you several of the ten overarching peacekeeping strategies my Food Fights co-author and I distilled in order to arm all parents with the skills and approaches necessary to wage war on the childhood obesity epidemic – one French fry, grocery store meltdown, or food refusal at a time.

  1. Don’t fight over food. Mealtime was never meant to be contentious, and no matter how much you commit yourself to instilling in your child healthy eating habits, vow never to turn the dinner table into a battlefield. In short, this means committing to some basic ground rules about how you’re going to approach food (including those listed below), and then applying them calmly and consistently.
  2. Never let them see you sweat. In other words, don’t let your child know just how much parental self-worth you have resting on whether or not he eats a bite of broccoli. Studies show that the more you blatantly “push” healthy foods, the more likely your child is to resist. Conversely, I might add, the more that foods are restricted, the more likely children are to want them (and eat more when given the chance). It’s simply your job to place healthy foods in front of your child, and your child’s job to decide how much to eat.
  3. Try, try…try, try again. If I were really to make this point, I would write out the word “try” ten to fifteen times to add greater emphasis to the number of times it can take for a child to try a new food before accepting it. I know it may seem a bit shocking. But once you understand that calmly offering new and healthy foods on a regular and repeated basis makes a very real difference, it is usually much easier to swallow the many predictable rejections. In particular, I like taking the low-key approach of teaching children to ask for “No thank you” bites. Children get to retain a sense of control, know that they will not be forced to eat, and you accomplish your goal of exposing them to new foods.
  4. Out of sight, out of mind. This may seem like stating the obvious, but when it comes to your child wanting, begging, and/or whining for unhealthy foods in lieu of healthier ones, let me remind you that it is under your complete control to regulate what foods come into your homes. If you don’t want your child begging for it, then don’t buy it. Of course trips to the grocery store, visits to the grandparents, and child care (all topics addressed in detail in Food Fights) can all pose more of a challenge and will require additional consideration.
  5. Eat by example. I would be remiss if I didn’t make the closing (and perhaps most important) point that all the nutrition resources, no thank you bites, and dietary directives in the world won’t stand nearly the chance they would otherwise if you don’t eat by the same principles. From the time you enter parenthood, your children will be watching you, and they’re far more likely to eat as you do than as you say.

With that said, I wish you and your entire family good health and a lifetime of “peas and homini!”

Originally posted on Omaha World Herald’s Live Well Nebraska