Ending dinnertime tantrums over healthy eating

By Capt. Susan M. Stankorb
Registered Dietitian, Department of Nutritional Medicine

Creating a healthy food environment for our children can have long lasting effects, not only in their eating habits, but also for long term chronic disease prevention.  The question becomes how do we balance our desire to provide a healthy start for our children with the hustle and bustle of our daily lives? 

There are some simple, low impact ways to improve healthy eating behaviors. For example, our food choices are highly influenced by availability, especially during childhood. Have you ever seen your child’s eyes light up at the sight of a shelf filled with options from floor to ceiling?  It is very important to understand that making healthy foods readily available increases consumption, but too many options can we overwhelming.

The trick is to offer fewer unhealthy choices and more healthy ones. This basically means, when given fewer alternatives, both parents and children are more likely to make healthier choices.

Remember, both the parent and the child play a role in healthy eating. Ultimately as the parent or caregiver it is our responsibility to decide what foods will be offered and your children’s responsibility to decide whether or not they will eat it.  Contrary to popular belief, if children don’t eat well at one meal they are likely to eat better at the following meal. The key is to keep the food environment positive so that next time they may be more willing to try something outside their comfort zone.

Did you know that it may take multiple exposures to a food, like a new fruit or vegetable, before a child will accept it? Imagine that it is the first time you’re serving cauliflower to your child and she absolutely refuses to try it. You shouldn’t accept defeat by taking it off the menu permanently. Rather, give the product a makeover and try again another time. A dish like cauliflower popcorn (link below) will surely grab your child’s attention and appeal to her taste buds. The result? Both parties are happy!

Along with food makeovers, you can be a model consumer for your child. New fruits and vegetables can be intimidating to many youngsters, but if they observe you trying new fruits and vegetables, they often follow in your footsteps.

Never underestimate the power of involving your child in grocery shopping. Turn it into a game – having your child identify different types of foods, what nutrients they contain and what these nutrients do for your body.  For example, carrots have carotene and they help you see well and milk has calcium and it helps build strong bones and teeth.  You can have them think of other animals that eat these foods, or how they might grow — on a tree, in the ground, on stocks, on vines. On the flipside, have your child identify unhealthy items such as potato chips and soda. Can they recognize  why these products are unhealthy?

Once home, find ways for your children to be involved in meal preparation. This can be something as small as getting the ingredients from the fridge or pantry to mixing ingredients together. Involvement in family meals can promote lifelong healthful eating habits. 

For additional age specific tips and tricks, including that cauliflower popcorn recipe, visit: http://www.eatright.org/kids/.