My brother and I grew up in a relatively health conscious home. We understood the importance of veggies and drinking water throughout the day. However, we also often opted for Pizza Hut and copious amounts of Sprite and Root Beer at meals.
Eating healthy was possible but it seemed highly inconvenient. To us, it was an ideal, fun to consider but obviously not feasible. Then, around the age of 10, my parents flipped the switch, deciding it was time to reevaluate the foods we were putting into our bodies. As kids, my brother and I were reluctant to remodel the content of our fridge. We loved our nightly ice cream bowls, sugary cereals and back-to-back mac n cheese nights. But my mother did an excellent job at slowly (and sneakily) transitioning the family. Today, now in our late teens and early twenties, the Prince family siblings eat similarly to the paleo diet and enjoy every minute of it.
As a parent, it can be frustrating to teach your children the importance of eating healthy foods, especially when they are in their unruly toddler years. Nutrition experts and years of research say it often takes 10 to 15 tries before a child learns to appreciate a new flavor. Diligence was at the core of my mother’s method and, I believe, the secret to our family’s success. To help encourage your kids to pick better foods, here are five of her sneakiest tips.
1. Plan meals and snacks ahead of time
In the heat of a moment, it’s tempting to reach for whatever’s convenient. My mother always had a designated car cooler and snack shelf for those unexpected hunger waves. Dinners were prepped two or three days in advance and included a balanced mix of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Examples included cooking a big bowl of entrée chili or soup, baking a large tray of lean meats or steaming a pot full of brown rice. Doing so eliminated the temptation to buy fast food daily and took the tedious nature out of healthy eating.
2. Don’t force it
Refrain from being the food police. Instead of scolding or nagging, try the ‘hero worship’ method: pick your child’s favorite athletes, superheroes or family members and explain how much they love to eat healthy foods. I loathed drinking water until I learned how much my older cousin Cassidy loved it. She would drink it at every meal and my mother was always quick to remind me about it. I looked up to Cassidy so much that I decided to push myself to hydrate better. The habit stuck because it was my decision to change, rather than my mother’s.
3. Get the kids involved in the kitchen
Kids are curious, adventurous beings. They’re also much more willing to eat something they helped create. Teach your children about different foods while browsing the grocery isles and ask them to pick out certain produce. Older kids can chop fruits and veggies while the younger ones taste test and stir. My mother loved to get creative too, arranging our food in shapes of smiling faces or animals. Not only will your children become more familiar with the right foods, they’ll benefit from the time you spend together as a family. It’s a win-win.
4. Practice balance
Adopt the correct attitude now: perfection does not exist. Sometimes you’ll have no choice but to opt for the drive-through or the value pack potato chips. Life is crazy and unpredictable. My mother never completely barred us from treats either. My brother and I still ate pizza at parties, cake on our birthdays and buttery popcorn at the movies. We understood that these were “special” foods, treats to be enjoyed outside of the household routine, on unique days and after big accomplishments. Monthly takeout nights with the family became special traditions that us kids looked forward to. We utilized the treats as memory makers rather than daily forms of fuel. Balance is key.
5. Be a role model
In your children’s eyes, at least in the early years, you are an all-knowing leader. You decide the outlook on every household activity. My mother never complained about eating healthy as though it were a burden. She was a beacon of positivity, which encouraged me to follow her example, especially when I felt like giving up.
Parenting is full of up’s and down’s, successes and setbacks. It can seem tempting to throw in the towel on certain “should do’s” while childrearing and simply hope for the best. Stay persistent and trust that the lessons will stick in their own time. As a young adult today, I’m so grateful for my parents’ patience and commitment. Thanks mom, for always keeping my best interest in mind.