Building a strong dialogue around good eating is an important cornerstone to establishing lasting healthy habits in your household.
Whether your child has barely started solids, or is well into school (yes, that means teens, too!), the words we use around food as a family go a long way in forming positive associations with self-care and eating well.
Below are some conversation starters for you and your family.
Talk about what different foods do for your body.
- They provide energy. Fruits, seeds, nuts, and grains give us energy to do everything we need to do in a day, whether it's running across the playground or helping with tasks at home. Frame this for your kids by encouraging other areas of development as you reinforce the benefits of the foods that helped them get there. ("Wow, that apple helped you climb all the way up there!")
- They help build brain cells and learn. Celery, cauliflower, broccoli, blueberries, crabmeat, chickpeas and walnuts are all important sources of brain-boosting nutrients and anti-oxidants. What's something your child wants to learn more about? Work these foods into a conversation about brain-power and learning.
- They help us grow. Is your child into things that are BIG (dinosaurs, construction vehicles, trains)? Do they like to talk about being a grown up or what they'll do when they're older? Use this to your advantage. As you introduce different proteins and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and turnip, talk about how these help us develop. Use words your child can relate to. Dinosaur veggie burgers sound much more fun than just regular ole' veggie burgers, don't they?
- They help us remember things. Fish, chia seeds, flax, and coconut oil are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, while green leafy veggies are a great source of folate. These are brilliant for brain health and memory encoding, so frame this in a way that resonates with your little one. Each time an opportunity arises to recognize them for remembering something, bring it back to the healthy stuff they've been eating. ("Those chia seeds sure are helping your brain, aren't they?")
Ask kids to describe new foods: texture, color, taste.
Kids often take seven introductions to a new food before they're willing to try it. Even if your little one won't have more than a taste (or a smell) of what's on their plate, open up a conversation about what they see. Ask them to describe the color, texture, and smell. What do they like about how this looks? (Broccoli has those cute little knobs at the end! Avocadoes are squishy!) What do they dislike about how this looks? (Tomatoes have goopy stuff around their seeds. This looks like 'x', and I don't like 'x'.) Ask them to compare the food with something they've had before. Ask if they're afraid to taste it because they worry it will taste bad. Engage your little one with their food - even if they won't try it - to encourage a relationship that goes beyond pursed lips and flat-out refusal.
Talk about the different types of foods we eat each day (and how often we should eat them)
We can't have our favorite foods every day, all the time. Instead, we can help kids understand why certain foods make sense to eat regularly, while other foods are more for special occasions. Create three categories for your family using words your kids can relate to. I like to use:
- Fueling Foods (foods we eat at every meal) - whole grains, organic protein, veggies, healthy fats
- Fun Foods (foods we eat once or twice a day) - fruit, dairy, dairy alternatives
- Treat Foods (foods we eat once or twice a week, or on special occasions) - think 'birthday party food' like chips, juice, chocolate (and look for the healthiest, least processed version possible)
Introduce the idea that we can have different foods on different days.
Using the above metric, we can more easily explain why we don't eat the same thing every day. Not only would that mean we'd grow bored, we'd also miss out on some really yummy options! Help kids understand that this isn’t the last time they will have a particular food: it will come back on another day, and there are lots of other delicious options in the meantime.
To make this even easier, offer a consistent variety of whole foods at home. This means it's less surprising when new foods make an appearance - kids will grow to expect change - and as their palates expand, they'll grow more and more excited with the possibility of new flavors with each meal. Of course, having favorites and standbys is nice, so feel free to work these into your meal rotation when you'd like.
Lead by example: why do grown-ups like these foods?
Set an example for your kids by eating healthfully yourself -- then talk about how good these healthy foods make you feel. Talk about what they allow you to do and how you like to prepare them. Involving kids in the food selection and decision-making process can also be a valuable part of this dialogue.
At the root of all of this is that positive language, praise, and encouragement for healthy eating is worth a ton more than guilt, fear, or punishment focused on food choices. Keep the dialogue flowing as your child's preferences develop and change: allowing them space to communicate what they're feeling around food can go a long way in creating lasting great eating habits.