It’s never too late! Start talking to your kids about what “real” food is, where ingredients come from and how to cook homemade meals. Give them the gift of knowledge and an open mind. Here are my top eight tips:
1 – Start as you mean to go on
It’s never too early to start getting your children eating well! From the moment your babies are weaned off milk, give them vegetables first. There is no reason for why babies should have sweet fruit as their initial foods. Get them used to the savoury side of life in the first six months of life; it’s a gift you can easily give them.
“From the moment your babies are weaned off milk, give them vegetables first.”
If you haven’t done this already, don’t worry – just get them changing their habits as soon as possible. Attitudes towards food and eating are learned early on, so don’t wait for tomorrow – start today! If children have puréed vegetables as a baby, are used to eating a side dish of steamed spinach with their chicken or fish as a toddler or drinking smoothies in the morning, then they won’t be hesitant about “healthy eating” as they get older. Just make healthy eating a normal part of life, not something difficult or battle-provoking.
“Just make healthy eating a normal part of life, not something difficult or battle-provoking.”
2 – Lead by example
If you truly want to see your children eating well, then you really do need to take the lead on this one. You can’t expect them to want to tuck in to lentils and tofu for dinner if you’re cooking yourself a pizza, or ask them to snack on chopped veggies and hummus while you’re eating a bag of crisps.
Making the decision to eat well needs to be a decision made by the whole family. Sitting down at the table to eat dinner collectively reinforces this and shows them you’re all in this together. Actions DO speak louder than words so don’t expect to see changes in them unless you make changes yourself.
“Actions DO speak louder than words so don’t expect to see changes in them unless you make changes yourself.”
3 – Clear out your cupboards
I say this quite often because it applies to adults just as much as children, but one of the crucial first stages in beginning a healthier way of living is by cleaning out your kitchen cupboards. If you and your children are hungry and there are a lot of unhealthy options available, you will be more inclined to make poor food choices.
This can so easily be prevented simply by not buying those items in the first place – for them and for you. Put a ban on any junk food or sugary items entering your house. This will stop so many unnecessary arguments with your children about why they can’t have a chocolate bar before dinner or croissants for breakfast.
“If you haven’t got the foods around, the answer is a straightforward “sorry we don’t have any of those”.”
If you haven’t got the foods around, the answer is a straightforward “sorry we don’t have any of those”. You’ll also be able to sigh with relief when you see them rooting through the cupboards unsupervised as all they will manage to find is something healthy and wholesome. You hold the power to decide what populates your kitchen – use that power wisely.
4 – Keep an eye out for hidden sugar
It’s probably obvious that the first things that need to go are candy bars, soda, sweets and pastries. However, it is equally important to keep an eye out for hidden sugar – there’s tons of it! Many foods you may not expect rank high in the white stuff: fruit juices, “healthy” cereal, granola, canned fruit, snack bars, dried fruit, fruit-flavoured yoghurts, tomato sauces, salad dressings, soups, and many items marked as ‘low-fat’ or ‘diet’.
“It is equally important to keep an eye out for hidden sugar – there’s tons of it!”
Start reading the ingredients labels of everything you choose and try to buy more food that doesn’t have a label in the first place! When looking at the ingredients, keep an out for the word “sugar”, yes, but also all the other ways that it can be sneakily described by manufacturers: glucose, maltose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, lactose, molasses, sorbitol, xylose and dehydrated cane juice are just a few of the terms (see the full list here).
5 – Attack breakfast
Research has found that children’s breakfast cereals can contain as much as three teaspoons of sugar per serving. That’s the same as putting two-and-a-half chocolate biscuits on their plate each morning. This really is a meal we should be attacking in our bid to start a healthier eating lifestyle for the whole family.
“Research has found that children’s breakfast cereals can contain as much as three teaspoons of sugar per serving. That’s the same as putting two-and-a-half chocolate biscuits on their plate each morning.”
We need to rethink the types of foods we are giving our children first thing in the morning; moving away from sugary cereals, fruit yogurts, pastries, bars and spreads and instead thinking about more wholesome, “real” options that will fuel their day.
Whether you make a batch of overnight oats (they only take two minutes to make), good grains porridge, some low-sugar granola (great to make on Sunday and have for the week), omelettes, hard boiled eggs, toast with tomatoes and cheese or a green smoothie, there are lots of healthier ways to start the day that also don’t take a lot of time to pop on the table.
6 – Plan ahead
For busy parents (what parents aren’t busy?), part of the difficulty in getting children to eat well is simply lack of time. Passing them some crisps to eat on the way home from school or sticking a ready-meal in the oven often seems like the easier option. However, with a little planning and preparation it doesn’t have to be this way.
I always find it beneficial to sit down on Sunday and look over the week ahead. I assess when we are going to be out? How many packed lunches do I need? How many late nights at work will there be? And so forth. Then I have a better idea of what we need to get us through the week.
“Whatever you can get done ahead of time on your prep day speeds things up during the week and is often a lifesaver when the clock strikes dinner time and you’re tired and uninspired.”
I try to do a big shop on Sunday when I have the most spare time and then prep as much as I can in advance. This usually involves washing and chopping veggies and greens, cooking a portion of quinoa to use throughout the week, making a soup to freeze, making a large batch of low-sugar granola or overnight porridge, or whipping up some savoury muffins to keep in the freezer. Whatever you can get done ahead of time on your prep day speeds things up during the week and is often a lifesaver when the clock strikes dinner time and you’re tired and uninspired.
7 – Portions and timing
Children don’t need adult portions of food – especially if most of it is empty calories, i.e. white pasta or white rice. The most important thing is that at least two-thirds of their plate is filled with vegetables and plants, and then the rest with good carbs and lean protein.
I always offer vegetables first. Often, before I even serve them their meal, I will put down a big plate of raw veggies with a dip and they will munch on those while I’m finishing up dinner. A fun thing to do is pretend you are at a fancy restaurant and serve their meal in ‘courses’, which in mom-speak just means starting with the greenest part of their meal when they are most hungry and then offer the rest – ‘the second course’ – after.
“A fun thing to do is pretend you are at a fancy restaurant and serve their meal in ‘courses’…”
It is also important to teach your children to stop eating once their tummies are telling them they have had enough. We should be training our brains from an early age not to over-eat simply because it is on our plate. We have a tummy alarm at our house, which goes off with a holler.
8 – No “Big-Deal” Eating
It is human nature to rebel against your parents – at least to a degree – so my best advice is: don’t make ‘healthy’ a BIG DEAL. The more you go on-and-on about how you are trying new healthy ingredients, you aren’t sure they are going to like them, they better eat them because they are good for you, and so forth, it just directs too much attention to the wrong thoughts.
“Don’t make ‘healthy’ a BIG DEAL.”
That kind of chatter gives kids all the ammunition they need to wind you up and push your buttons by being difficult about eating it. Don’t make food a battle of wills or power. Just present new foods, new ingredients, new ideas with a “no big-deal” mentality.
The less fuss you make about what goes on the kitchen table, the better – then children have fewer pre-conceived ideas about what they like and don’t like. Let them figure that out for themselves. Remember, children aren’t born only liking bland, plain and sweet foods – we have a lot to do with that, so broaden their horizons by presenting new ways of eating without any judgement.
Header image: Kristin Perers