Encouraging kids to eat healthy foods

Health researcher JASON SHON BENNETT shares his tips on how to teach, lead and inspire your kids to make good healthy long-term choices around food.

I started raising my four kids (now in their mid-teens and late 20s) in the 1980s and I am now helping to raise my granddaughter. The question I have been asked more than almost anything else around parenting is “How did you get your kids to eat healthy foods?”

The moment I knew I’d made it as a parent was the day Joel burst into tears at dinner because Luke had taken more salad than he had on his plate. That was a heavenly moment. My kids and granddaughter will happily eat raw vegetables as snacks (broccoli, cabbage, peas, carrots), vegetable soups for lunch or dinner (pumpkin, potato, vegetable), and green smoothies (apples, lemons, limes and raw spinach/silverbeet/kale blended). People often ask me what my secret is.

Getting started
For me, it started out with necessity and then it became a healthy habit. When I started raising children I was barely 21 and I was earning very little money. I was also determined to heal from my history of asthma, hay fever, skin, bowel and digestive problems and was 100 per cent committed to good nutrition (I succeeded and haven’t been sick since!). All we ate were healthy foods. We made everything fresh and ate what there was. It was a case of “here is breakfast” and if there was any “I don’t want it” then I would just say “ok, you are obviously not hungry. I will leave it here on the table and when you are hungry you can eat it later”.

They always came back and ate it.

YOU have to lead the way
As the parent, you inspire your kids more than anyone else ever will. You cannot eat junk foods and expect your kids to eat healthy foods. They follow what you do – not what you say. The key here is your headspace. If you want your kids to eat better, then you have to eat better. It starts and ends with you and what you are modelling to them every day.

Be prepared and control your environment
You control 80 per cent of what your kids eat so what you eat at home is what they will eat at home. What you buy at the supermarket is what they will eat the most of. Babies fed home-cooked food are more likely to eat fruit and vegetables when they are older. Infants weaned onto homemade meals develop a taste for what is good for them by the age of seven.

Kids will not starve themselves
If your kids refuse good food, don’t worry. This is the oldest trick in the book for kids. Playing into the anxieties of their parents’ worries about them eating. Relax. Do not let your kids fool you into thinking they will starve themselves.  Often we tend to offer too much choice rather than saying, “if you are hungry then you will eat this nourishing food that I have made for you”. Kids behave into the environment they are allowed to. All kids are strong-willed and they all want you to lead the way for them. You are the boss, not them. A great way to do it is to offer them three choices for breakfast, all of which are things you would be happy for them to eat. Then they choose and feel great that they get to choose. Packaged extruded sugary cereal is simply not one of the choices.

Tips

  1. Be prepared and control your environment. If there is only good food at home, then that is all there is to eat when they are hungry.
  2. Educate them. Around 93 per cent of kids growing vegetables at home or school will eat them and eat better if given the chance. All kids want to be healthy, strong, fast and fit. The more you educate your kids – the more they will want to eat well.
  3. Walk the talk yourself. It always starts with the parents’ attitudes and behaviour towards food. Think wisely about the food you bring into your kitchen.
  4. Make food fun – inspire them with humour and passion. Once, I got really excited about cabbage and was crunching loudly in my youngest boy’s ears. The kids loved this and we were all in hysterics. They have loved raw cabbage ever since! Veggie ‘face’ platters are another great idea. Get creative!
  5. The 80-20 rule is the one to follow. Ensure they eat well for breakfast, lunch and dinner and you have done your job as a parent.

The most important thing of all?
Create regular, healthy plant-based meals that you love for you and your kids. This will rub off on them and give them a deep appreciation of healthy eating long-term and that healthy food is delicious!

Jason Shon Bennett is a Kiwi health researcher, speaker and author. He’s in his early 50s, a proud father of four and grandfather of one, and his new book Feel Great & Live Longer is out now.