How to Get Your Kids to Eat a Heart Healthy Diet
Recently, we’ve been looking at heart disease in children, which is becoming more and more prevalent as obesity rises. A new study showed how eating a low fat vegan diet reduces many more heart disease risk factors in children than the predominant American Heart Association (AHA) recommendations did. But the chief complaint from those on the vegan diet in the study was that finding no added fat vegan options was difficult and expensive. So, if you have that added hurdle, it makes it even harder to get your kids to eat a heart healthy diet. Here are some ideas for ways to get your kids to eat a heart healthy diet.
Getting kids to eat healthy can be challenging under the best of circumstances. Even famous celebrity chefs can find it difficult to get their kids to eat their gourmet healthy meals. With teenagers, I have always stressed communication as the key to inspiring healthy kids, while with younger children I focus mostly on getting them involved. These strategies hold true for a heart-healthy diet just as much as for an overall healthy diet.
The younger you start your kids eating a healthy diet, the better. Taste buds can get corrupted very easily and once they switch off to trying new foods or to eating healthy things, you will have a very hard time getting them back. Even as a health-conscious adult, I have a hard time giving up the unhealthy flavors of my youth. We never drank a lot of sugary drinks, so I don’t have a problem giving those up, but when it comes to dairy or the occasional cookie, I have a hard time saying no. Once these tastes integrate themselves into your kids’ minds, you will find it difficult to eradicate them. When kids are young is the best time to make healthy eating part of their lives and habits, forever.
Lead by Example
Kids often model their own behavior on what their parents do. For better or worse, conscious or unconscious, this is pretty standard among children. Parents are their primary role model. So change your diet, too. Show your kids you enjoy eating spinach and cauliflower and they’ll be more interested in trying it. Friends are amazed that my toddlers will sit and eat spinach (even raw!) but to me, it is no surprise – they see my husband and I eating it all the time. Kale, beets, brown rice, and whole grain bread are all part of the diet they regularly see us eating, so they eat these foods, too.
More Family Time
Did you know that kids will eat more fruits and vegetables if you eat meals together as a family? Once again, kids have more opportunities to see parents modeling good eating habits. There is also the “peer pressure” effect, applied in a positive way. When kids see the rest of the family eating a meal, they are more likely to, as well. Eating meals together as a family has a lot of relationship benefits, too. In fact, family dinner is one common recommendation family therapists make. When I was a kid, family dinner almost every night of the week was the norm, but times have changed. Today, each member of the family eats at a different time, making it easy for kids to grab for convenience foods or just the tastiest bits of whatever meal is on offer. Eating together makes it socially unacceptable for a child to just grab a bag of chips from the corner store to have for dinner – that child now has to sit at the table and eat from what is on offer.
Don’t try to change your kids’ diet all at once. Switching from a meat-heavy, fatty, salty, sugary to a sugar-free, low-fat vegan diet will be a shock to your kids’ system. If their taste buds are corrupted, you need to wean them off unhealthy foods slowly and teach them gently to love healthy food. Change one snack and one type of food at a time. Swap out sugary fruit roll-ups for all-natural fruit leather one week. The next week change out buttery Ritz crackers for whole grain Mary’s Gone Crackers. Change from serving macaroni and cheese to serving macaroni and red pepper cheese dip, then swap out the macaroni for whole wheat options or for broccoli. By making changes slowly and gradually, you will not see an immediate change like you would if you changed your kids’ whole diet over suddenly, but the changes you do make are more likely to stick. And it is much more important to teach kids to have a healthy lifestyle that lasts than to have them shed pounds suddenly only to pick them up again a few months later.
Get them Gardening
Food education programs with a lot of success, like the Eden Village Camp I was involved with, teach a farm-to-table approach. Kids who grow their own vegetables are likely to love eating those vegetables. Growing vegetables is a great teaching tool for many subjects, like science, as kids learn about life cycles and the environment. But growing something also promotes a sense of pride and ownership in kids that makes them more likely to try – and keep eating – those foods they’ve grown. And growing things doesn’t require a full-scale garden or even a back yard! Kids in apartments can grow veggies in pots placed by windows and the need to water and care for plants gives kids a gentle sense of responsibility and stewardship that is great for their maturity.
Take them Shopping
Getting kids involved in the food selection experience also gives them a feeling of power and control. Kids, like adults, want to feel they have some measure of control in their lives. The younger the child, the more difficult it is to give them safe freedoms. In a world where you can get arrested for letting your kid play unattended in a park across the street, how can we give our kids the freedom to make choices and grow up? We are all required by law to be helicopter parents, like it or not. So taking your kids to the store with you and letting them help with the shopping is a great starting point. Begin by letting them pick out the fruits and veggies for the week. With very young kids, including toddlers, just bring them along to the store and let them pull a few things they want to eat off the shelves. Use it as a teaching opportunity for older kids, too. Before you go to the store, take the time to do a little bit of “homeschooling.” Sit down with them for an hour and plan out meals for the week, how much of what they need to buy, and then have them use math to figure out how much it will cost as you go through the store. The amount of time you invest in involving your kids in food shopping will be repaid in the amount of time you will not have to spend fighting to get them to eat nutritious foods later in the week.
Teach them to Cook
Cooking is one of my favorite creative endeavors. It is an opportunity to challenge oneself and is a rare opportunity to see nearly instant gratification from the fruits of your labors. Kids are more likely to eat food they themselves have prepared, and teaching kids to prepare healthy meals will benefit you as a parent down the line, even if it requires a bit of time investment now. Imagine never needing to make your kids’ lunches again, or being able to ask your kids to make dinner a few nights a week! Kids of all ages enjoy cooking. Even very young kids can learn to stir a bowl. Help them decorate healthy pizzas or casseroles with a variety of ingredients, or make dinners they can assemble themselves, such as a salad bar or taco bar. Giving them the responsibility of helping and the freedom of choosing is a great way to encourage kids to eat healthy food.
Try, Try Again
Finally, don’t give up! Getting kids to eat a healthier diet is a challenging task. Don’t expect them to jump on the bandwagon with enthusiasm right away (if they do, consider yourself fortunate!). It might take a lot of effort, and it might take some time. Just be patient and keep trying. There are a lot of different strategies you can implement and an infinite amount of yummy and healthy foods to try. If one doesn’t work for you, discard it and try a new one the next day. If you come across one that really works for you, add it to a list of special foods to make again. (Like my favorite Island Kale and Sweet Potato Soup, which everyone in my family loves and I make once or twice a month.)
I hope these tips and tricks work for you and if you have any other ideas please share them in the comments so we can all benefit. Here’s to helping inspire healthy kids and to motivating our kids to eat a heart healthy diet!