2018 Powerful Voices of the Year is a Sunday Series, featuring guest bloggers & parents covering some of the most important topics of our time; race, racism, religion, pregnancy and birth, grief and loss, entrepreneurship, women's rights, immigration, nutrition, sustainability, climate change, transgender voices, transracial adoption, foster care, art, representation, and yoga for surviving through crisis.
By Ashley Koch, Family Nutrition and Health Advocate
Feeding kids is easy…said no parent ever!
As a busy mom of two and student, I know feeding kids is challenging. Feeding our kids healthy food can require a significant investment of time and financial resources. There are also the joys and challenges of the constant feedback loop we receive from our ever-changing children that can sometimes feel exhausting. With some of the obstacles in mind, I am here to share with you why I think it is worth it, what I have learned along the way, some approaches to consider, and ideas on how your family might make changes.
1. Teaching our kids the importance of healthy food is a skill worth cultivating.
Showing our children how to prioritize healthy food and moving their bodies can be valuable tools that can help them build health that lasts a lifetime. Like many of the important tools we strive to equip our children with, it is not something that just happens for most parents. I know first hand it can require hard work, preparation, and often perseverance. It is not the path of least resistance, some days it can feel nearly impossible, but in the end it can be a worthy investment of our time and money as parents.
The first five years is an essential time for growth, health, and development for young children. 90% of the physical brain develops in the first five years of life, and nutrition plays a critical role in that brain development. Emerging evidence now places nutrition at the forefront as a tool for mental health prevention for children. Early food experiences and feeding strategies for young children will lay the groundwork for a lifetime of food preferences, behaviors and health. This doesn’t mean that it’s too late to make changes. It just reminds us that the sooner we start, the easier it will be for our children to make these changes sustainable.
Why does this matter? The percentage of children with obesity in the US has more than tripled since the 1970s. Today 1 in 5 are considered obese (CDC, 2017). Estimates show 25% of children have a chronic health condition (asthma, allergies, eczema, obesity, physical condition, behavior / learning challenges) (CDC, 2017). Trends show that 1 in 3 children born today will have diabetes by 2050 (CDC, 2010). Much, but not all of this is preventable. We as parents of this generation have the ability to change the course of our children’s lives.
What we feed our children and physical activity are two of the most powerful choices we can make for our children’s future health outcomes. While your genes play a role in the risk of developing these chronic diseases, we now know that 70%-90% of the outcomes are determined by behavioral and environmental factors (diet, inactivity, and smoking) that we can influence. We can’t control our children’s genetics, but we can help them make choices that determine how our children’s genetics come to life.
2. So how do we do this as parents? I believe we as parents decide what, when and where children eat (this especially rings true for younger children). Our children can decide how much and if they will eat at all.
I focus on providing regularly scheduled meal times, a distraction free space for eating, and access to a variety of healthy foods throughout the day (vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, healthy fat, and lean protein) with as little distractions as possible. When I prepare a meal, I try to build a meal by offering at least one thing I think each child will enjoy and hope for the best. This doesn’t mean there are not days my children are incredibly disappointed with the choices I have made, or that I will get it right all the time. Children are unpredictable beings, so we just enjoy the ride! I celebrate the good days and remember there is always tomorrow.
I create room for my children to decide if they will eat and how much they will eat. This can empower children to navigate their relationship with food and help reduce the power struggles around food. It is normal for children’s appetite to fluctuate, so I do not pay much attention to the days when they barely touch their plates from time to time. With this division of responsibility, children can have space to explore their hunger cues, learn how to eat appropriate portions to fuel their body and cultivate the language to articulate when they are full and when they are hungry. In most cases, children are incredibly capable of knowing how much to eat to fuel their bodies when given a range of good choices. Our family does not create a 2nd meal on the days we have gotten it all wrong with the kids. On these occasions, I sometimes offer a healthy alternative when necessary. For us this might include a handful of nuts, olives, banana with almond butter, applesauce, or carrots.
3. One of the most fascinating things I’ve learned on this journey is that what we feed children, influences what they will be like.
Research validates that it takes children 10-20 experiences before they will enjoy and accept a new food. It is normal for children to be cautious around new foods and new flavors. The experiences we are creating for our children in utero and beyond are developing their taste buds. From an early age, try to offer a range of food experiences and flavor profiles and introduce your children to the foods your family enjoys.
Consistent exposure of new foods will help your children flex their muscles at being willing to explore a larger variety of foods. If children experience the same meals over and over again, this can lead to a narrow list of foods they are willing to eat. One of my favorite ways to increase variety in a child’s food preferences is to start by offering their favorite foods in a range of preparations. Once they find more flexibility in how they are willing to eat some of their favorite foods, you can expand from there.
4. Can you find the time to sit down to a meal with your family?
Sometimes sitting down to family meals can feel impossible, especially with full time working parents and long commutes. I make this request as someone who understands that time is not always on our side and so many of our family schedules feel as if they are conspiring against us. Yet, I also know families with tough circumstances that found ways to make room for family meals and have seen great shifts in their children’s relationships with food.
Sitting down for a family meal helps children understand healthy food as a priority for your family and it gives children an opportunity to slow down and appreciate their food. Even if it’s only on Sundays or the weekends, try to make space for sitting down together when you can.
5. If you are hoping to make changes or shifts to your family eating routine, making a plan and including your children in the process can be helpful.
Remember, changes can feel hard to everyone and small changes over time can lead to big changes. Try setting realistic goals for your family and share your goals with your children. Weekly meal planning can often set families up for success. Consider creating a grocery list and budget to ensure you have what your family needs to stay fueled throughout the days ahead. We make a list of dinners for the week and ask our children to each come up with one dinner idea. Of course their ideas often include pasta and pizza, and if it were up to them we would eat these foods everyday! Creating this list allows my family to consider our busiest days, upcoming kids activities and then I can be realistic about what I can and can’t do each week.
Talking to kids about changes you plan to make can help get their buy in. If age appropriate, include your children in coming up with ideas or alternative food ideas that fit into your new goals. When we have made changes in the past we try to talk through how these changes might feel hard for each of us, and this allows us to fall back on during the hardest moments. Consider other ways you can invite them to be a part of the plan. Can they help clean out the pantry, grocery shop, explore the vegetables in the produce aisle, chop vegetables, cook, pack their lunches, and read labels? For younger children, you could explore ways to eat your way through the rainbow in fruits and vegetables, make it fun! Small changes and conversations can send big signals to children about
6. A great place to start when trying to make changes is by reducing the presence of distracting foods in your home and finding alternatives for these foods.
Clean out the foods that you feel are the biggest distractions towards your family goals. Often these foods get in the way of being able to make better choices. Start by not restocking the foods you no longer want in your home. Find a place to start; the snack foods, the breakfast options. There is a time and place for sometimes foods, but reducing their abundance in your home will make your job a lot easier. Be sure to offer alternative ideas for your children to replace these foods and consider their input. Go at a pace that is sustainable for your family and allows you to make lifelong lifestyle changes.
When possible and your budget allows, look for whole, minimally processed foods. Experts agree, eating whole foods is the best choice for your health. Whole food is defined as food that has been minimally processed and refined and does not include additives. This means that the foods are as close to the original source as possible. Eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, and whole grains can be valuable for growing bodies. Eating the rainbow of vegetables and fruits will allow your children to access so many important nutrients they need.
Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your parenting adventure. The internet is filled with a vast amount of resources, ideas and support groups to help family learn more and find ways to overcome the challenges that their individual family’s experience. Remember, there is not one perfect way to eat for every individual. Everyone is making compromises in some way as they navigate the complicated food system. Try to find balance between foods that serve your family’s health, the convenience foods that get you through a busy week and fit into your budget, and sometimes foods your family enjoys for special occasions. Some days will be better than other. We are all a work in progress!
Does your child eat less than 20 different foods, cries or falls apart when presented with new foods, refuses entire categories of food textures, almost always eat different foods than your family, or frequently reported as a “picky eater”? Could your family consider enlisting the help of a local feeding therapist in your area? To read more about how a feeding therapist might help, visit here.
Ashley writes at Vibrantly Healthy Kids. She is a San Francisco based family nutrition and health advocate and the mother of two vibrant young girls. Feeding kids healthy food is easy...said no parent ever! Ashley supports parents in building a foundation of healthy food relationships that can last their children a lifetime. Your child's connection to food can be deepened in countless ways beyond what is on their plate. Each decision we make about what we put into our bodies, onto our bodies, or into our homes are decisions that can influence our family’s health. Ashley's goal is to equip parents with information that makes these choices easier and helps parents bring them to life in approachable ways. A student pursuing a master’s in Functional Medicine and Human Nutrition, Ashley is on the path to serving more families as a Child and Family Nutritionist. When she's not nose deep in textbooks or writing papers, you will find her sharing ideas on instagram or working one-on-one with parents to create individuals plans that fit their lifestyles. To read more about her philosophy visit here and here.
Click here for the rest of the series.