I heard a blurb on the radio the other day about how a study had come out proving that it wasn’t worth the fight to make your children eat vegetables. I didn’t hear the details of who published it; I was too busy collecting my jaw from the floor and listening to their rationalizations. From what the DJ said, the psychosocial damage to both parent and child totally outweighs any benefit of the vegetable eaten, and over time, forcing the issue of food makes no statistical difference in how the grown child eats.
I think the study missed the point. If the current global health crisis is to be addressed, it must be addressed one kid at a time, one meal at a time. Our habits of eating must change. It’s a lifestyle, not a short-term diet. With that in mind, if you’re in a battle over food with your child, it’s because they’ve already learned what to eat. They eat what you eat. If you’re trying to force them to do what you don’t, they know it’s only a matter of time before you give up; they’ve won.
How should we eat? is a question that starts really early. The newborn is learning constantly. He is watching how you move, listening to how you talk to others, and tasting broccoli in mama’s milk. So good nutrition starts with me, what I eat, and what I provide for my child. As he begins to wean off of milk, his first food should not be french fries at McDonald’s. (I’m ashamed to admit that two of my children did start this way.) Boys love getting to use real tools, and using appropriately-sized knives to help cut veggies for Mommy will encourage them to be part of the process of putting food on the family’s table. (This is how I retrained those two .) Girls can and will do the same, but they’re usually motivated by getting to “play” with shapes and how the finished product will look. Let them be creative with combinations and shapes. And don’t be discouraged when you run out of ingredients for dinner because they ate everything raw as they chopped. I’ve been there.
I did have a mother once tell me she envisioned her children, running horror-flick style through the house with butcher knives. I suppose that could be a problem, but it’s not been my experience. Kids are always welcome in my kitchen. Good things happen there. I allow little ones to snitch snacks while I prepare and they watch – here’s when they learn to keep their hands away from the knives. Toddlers can be given table knives to slice their own banana with breakfast, or cooked baby carrots with dinner. As they gain skill, we move to a sharper knife, and mushrooms or celery on a cutting board at the table where they can work securely. I’ve never met a kid who didn’t enjoy cutting little trees out of a head of broccoli. I think the trick to turn little Freddie into a chef instead of a B-rate movie character is your expectations of him. As you treat kitchen implements with respect and skill, he learns what kitchen work looks like.
Remember to model well, even when you think they’re not looking. They are. They can do more than you think they can. This salad was completely made by children – little ones sectioning oranges, leafing lettuce and slicing grapes, slightly older ones slicing avocados and mixing dressing. I buy sliced almonds, unless someone wants to show off their cutlery skills.
This is lifestyle training, then, more than a health curriculum. It’s not just about what they eat. If all they eat is McDonald’s, they will buck vegetables. They won’t know what asparagus looks like. They might even fear beets. Toddlers learn by handling things, experimenting with flavors, textures, and how things react to touch. By giving them fresh, raw foods, and letting them pick out new ones at the grocery store to take home and prepare, they learn to love real food. You’ll teach them not only that “we eat healthy food,” but that they are capable of doing this for themselves.
This is efficiency at its best. Little Freddie’s pre-dinner time at the cutting board not only kept him from screaming hungrily at your feet while you’re trying to prepare dinner, but taught him how to eat well, manage his health, and keep control of his finances. You helped him to make difference in the world, all while maintaining a happy home. Is this difficult to do in a dual-income home? Yes, but meals still need made. Why not enlist help, even if it’s not the most effective (yet)? The time you invest in making dinner for your family is time you didn’t have to spend at the doctor’s office for sick kids, and money you didn’t have to spend on blood pressure medications for yourself. As you get older, don’t be surprised when they take over the kitchen to make “what they really like.”
The health of our country is atrocious, and the world is not much better. Fighting for health is worth it, but it’s not about fighting our children. It’s about joining together as a family to fight for what is good for all of us. Change starts small – with me. Even if I don’t like vegetables and I didn’t start them out properly, if I know that my children should eat better, then so should I. Admit it to them. Struggle together against junk food cravings. Make peach cobbler to reward everybody for trying your new cauliflower soup recipe. It’s good for all of us, and none of us want to die young of totally preventable illnesses. This is about loving our children, and wanting to be there for our grandchildren.
Raising a family is not about making the kids into something you’re not willing to be. It’s about making sure that what you’ve started makes a difference that lasts into the next generation. If you’re not on the right track, change it, and encourage your family wo come along. Any change is hard; there will be days when ice cream is dinner. But those days should be rare, and getting rarer every year as the family learns to enjoy the benefits of health that eating well brings.