The kids eating kale chips.
If we think of “normal” as what we usually do and a “treat” as something we really enjoy but don’t have as often as other things, then I consider healthy eating normal and fresh tilapia a treat.
I think too many of us get caught up in other people’s description of “normal” and “treat”. But we can make the definition anything we want for ourselves. We can do this for our kids, too.
I want my kids to think that their healthy way of eating is normal even though it’s not the norm. I want them to feel that a bowl of fruit or a salad with tons of different vegetables is a treat, even though in our culture, it’s more of a “should do” than a “want to do”. I want them to think that feeling good after eating is a treat, instead of accepting feeling sluggish or hyper. I want them to be picky and really care about what they’re putting into their bodies. If something doesn’t make them feel good after eating it, I want them to love themselves enough to avoid that food. Just like if someone doesn’t treat them right, I’d want my kids to avoid that person.
I still give my kids ice cream a few times a month. It’s not about making foods the enemy. It’s about supporting their learning of how to make distinctions between different types of foods. It doesn’t help to let children hear that first we suffer through this healthy meal and then we get to the ice cream treat for relief. That’s probably not teaching them something helpful. Neither is being forceful though and I’ll be the first to admit, it’s really hard to get kids to eat healthy in this world we live in.
Here is my formula so to speak, which has worked really well so far: (keep in mind we still have days where I am an exasperated mom of two little arms crossed, head shaking toddlers)
I’ll use the example of a salad because many young children look at raw vegetables like inedible toys to play with.
I let my kids watch the entire preparation of the salad. They’re two years old so all they can really help me with is getting the vegetables out of the fridge and drying them after I’ve washed them. Then they watch as I cut them and throw them in a bowl. I make it a point to look happy while doing this and sometimes make a song out of what I’m preparing. Two year old’s get into anything: “carrots and celery, spinach and broccoli, yummy, yummy, yummy!” Don’t make fun of me. It gets them dancing. Anyway, then when my husband and I eat, we ignore the kids. We enjoy our food, we let out plenty of genuine “mmm’s” and allow the kids to try whatever vegetable they want to try. They’ve never tried any dressing other than olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice and salt so since that’s all they know, they don’t complain.
The reason we ignore them during meal time is they stop performing for us. They tend to be really cute, you know two year olds. They’re like “look at me, I can make a funny face!” Or they smile and want you to go “Awww!” So while we give them plenty of this kind of attention, while we eat, the focus is, at least for now, on enjoying the food. We also never force them to eat anything because no human being likes being forced to do anything. And we certainly don’t want them to associate any foods with a negative memory.
They mimic us parents so I’ve found they focus on the food on the plate and with nothing left to do, they start getting curious about it. After all, mom and dad look happy over it, maybe it’s pretty good? They usually don’t want to miss out. Often, they won’t like something but will try it over and over until low and behold, they eat it and find out they like it all of a sudden. All that was needed was a ton of patience on our part. To be honest sometimes I’ve wanted to pull my hair out because that’s just how it is with feeding young children. Sticking with my goals has proved pretty successful and I hope others try to just hang in there. Your hard work will pay off one day!
The other thing that probably helps us out is my kids only watch kid DVD’s. They have never seen TV commercials. In Canada it’s illegal to market to children and I wish it were that way here in the US. It doesn’t help parents to have their kids subject to happy looking children enjoying junk food and toys that they may not have in their homes.
The problem sometimes with too many junk food treats is not that a few junk food meals a week will do much damage but simply that the salt, sugar, and fat content will mess with a person’s taste buds. If a child tastes the exaggerated flavors in McDonald’s chicken nuggets and milkshake, how are they going to accept the milder flavors of grilled chicken and a vegetable? It’s hard and it’s asking a lot of them. I’ve found that since not having any fast food meals in years, if I have a bite of someone’s fast food meal, I can’t handle the high amount of salt, sugar, and fat. My tongue can’t. And I have to spit the food out. I never thought that would happen to me but it did. (My exception is ice cream!) I think we can give kids this advantage. All it takes is slowly and gradually replacing junk food with whole foods and home cooked meals. I know that’s not easy but small steps reap great rewards in this area.
It’s up to all of us to change what the norm is. We can change what we consider a treat. It doesn’t have to be about replacing a birthday cake. No, birthday cakes are wonderful! As my mom would say, It can be about having a tiny slice instead of a huge one. It can be about more fresh whole foods instead of bagged and boxed items. It can be about a walk after dinner, instead of a TV show after dinner. When we change what is considered normal, we change how future generations live. We give them a better life. We set them up for more success and less failure. Right now, we’re in trouble and we all know it. And there is no room for feeling guilty about it. Don’t let guilt bring you down, you don’t deserve that. It’s about taking small steps to awareness and acknowledgement of all of our hands in the matter. Think about how easy it would be to do this if no one judged. The reality is what it is but no one needs to be put down over it. Not when this living and parenting this is SO hard.
If this post upsets someone it’s only because it strikes a chord. And I’m not on a high horse. There are moments when I am so tired I give the kids strawberries and dark chocolate for dinner. I know that is not ideal and I try to find a way to make the next day go better and recognize that I’m a parent and being a parent is hard. If my kids eat really well on most days, I’m happy with that.
I write this post because the one thing I feel a sense of relief over as a parent is that a meal of broccoli, chicken and brown rice makes my kids happy. Although they don’t quite understand the connection between how they feel and what they eat, I know they want to feel good. We all do. Maybe when they’re older they will eat all the junk food they can get their hands on. That’s fine with me. Have a ball! I have faith that when they start feeling the affects of this, they will think back to the time when they felt better and make the connection to the food they ate and the lifestyle habits we had. And I think they’ll know their way back. I trust that because they knew a different norm, they will be able to make better decisions for themselves. In the meantime it will take longer for them to sustain damage from the food because at least their first few years were full of healthy food. Anyway, that’s my plan and I’m trying to stick with it.
For support, I hope my kids find other like minded peers to live this way with. Wouldn’t it be cool if a healthier lifestyle became the norm? Wouldn’t it be easier for others to join in? Wouldn’t we all find relief? I know I would. I’m tempted by double fudge brownies just as much as the next gal.