Do you know how many times I have told my kid to “Just try it!”. I know you know, because you’ve said it a thousand times too. We’ve pressured, and bribed and read every article on how to politely and kindly and not too traumatically, coerce our kids into anything besides bread or crackers or pasta and butter.
This is the never ending game we play three plus times a day with our kids, and we want to win. Bad. We’ll do anything. We’ll play dirty too. We’ll think by adding spinach to those morning muffins they won’t notice. Rookie move. They have us right where they want us too, because they have no plans of eating our food trickery. They also know that with every “No, I don’t like them,'' they're one step closer to getting that toast. They know that our exhaustion and frustration from making another failed, healthy meal attempt is slowly deteriorating our brains cells and negotiating neurons.
We can’t give up though, we want to win. We want to feel that we are doing our kids well, keeping them healthy, giving them good habits, but more importantly, we want that super parent trophy. And by trophy, I mean we want the other parents to see us out to dinner with our kids, sitting quietly, not on their ipads, eating vegetables and a real entree meal. Not the nuggets or butter pasta off the kiddie menu. No. We want envy of all the other parents when our kids takes down that baked fish and those steamed vegetables as if it's covered in melted chocolate.
But you know what? It’s time we give it a rest. I had to. I’m even a health coach, and I had to wave my white flag and tap out.
Before I started my healthy eating journey 10 years ago, I pretty much ate like an 8 year old. I didn’t eat many vegetables, and if I did, it was usually in casserole form, and covered in a can of cream of mushroom soup. Sure I’d had green beans, from the can, but I hadn’t really opened my world to try new things. Especially new, real, whole foods. I’d never heard of or tasted a persimmon and thought dates looked like cockroaches. Who wants to eat that? I also hated avocados. That is like sacrilegious in the health and wellness world. Have you seen how many health memes there are on avocados?
Also not in my repertoire? Cabbage, cilantro, coconut milk, cauliflower, sauerkraut, shiitake mushrooms, spelt flour, tahini, nuts that weren’t already roasted and salted, hummus, almond butter, chia seeds, flax seeds or hemp seeds. This list could go on and on. I had no awareness, no interest and was not thrilled to try any of these foods for the first time. Then, once I got over the confusion and fear and tried them, I still was NOT into most of it. It took time for my tastebuds to grow into it a bit.
So why did I think I could just offer my kids something new or weird, and expect it to be a slam dunk?
It takes time for all of us to learn to love foods that aren’t easily loved, unlike sugary carbs. Devouring carbs and sugar is in our programming. If we found sugar and fat 1000 years ago, we were supposed to eat as much as we could for more energy. We didn’t always have access to food, so we had to take in all we could get when we found it. Now, we have food around us all the time. Really, try to think of a place where you can’t get food within a few steps. Think hard. Maybe the DMV? I think that might be the only place where you can’t get a snack. But then again, you could probably just Postmates some donuts while you wait in that epic line for your renewal.
The problem is, the food around us at every turn is not always great quality food. C.R.A.P. (Chemicals, Refined sugars, Artificial Additives, uber Processed) food is everywhere and what we crave too. With all the conflicting science on vegan vs paleo and everything in between, there is one common thread that simplified food for me; we all need to eat more real, whole foods and vegetables.
It doesn’t seem complicated to eat more real food and less C.R.A.P. but it can be, not just for the kids. Yes, I’m looking at you. Let’s not forget that we would all probably order butter pasta off the kids menu too if we could. So, don't beat yourself up too much when you feel like all they want are carb-y, sugary snacks. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many games and tactics and instead focus on eating more simple, real food. Here is a simple, lazy guide for helping our kids eat better in the long run.
I don’t short order cook and I don’t think you should either. Not just because you’ve got to stand strong, and what you make is what’s for dinner, but mainly because most of us barely have time or energy to make a decent dinner at all, but to make two or three dinners is just ridiculous. If I’m making something for dinner where I suspect my kids will cry and run away from, I let it go and say, “You don’t have to eat what I made, you need to taste it ( a small bite needs to go in the mouth but can be spit out) and then you can make your own dinner, with one vegetable.” I don’t even have to say the words anymore, they just ask if they can make something. They know it needs to include a vegetable, and that is usually raw cucumbers, carrots or peppers. There are two things they get out of this. One, they are learning vital cooking skills they need in life, more so than algebra in my opinion, but that’s for another day. And two, they are taking care of their own sh*t. If they don’t want to eat what I made, it’s their responsibility to take care of themselves. Depending on age, I do need to help a bit with the stove for a quesadilla or boiling some pasta water, but they cook and they clean. I understand this is harder for toddlers, who pretty much resist everything. For you I say, it will be over soon. So just always have some whole grain, organic pasta and vegetables they will eat in the fridge ready to go ;)
This is a fancy pants thing chefs started doing a few years ago, maybe it was creatively, or maybe it was masking laziness. I mean it is for me. So the chefs would make, let’s say a strawberry shortcake, but instead of it traditionally being layered together and served, it would be the sugary strawberries in a bowl, with whipped cream on top and sweet biscuit or cookie on the side. It is essentially just separating the components of a dish and presenting them together. This is a trend I can and did get behind. Like when I make a big chopped salad for myself, I will just keep the ingredients separate for the kids plates or put it on a cute wood board. They go nuts for a “party board” dinner* (*more on that another day). If it is taco or pita night, it’s most likely a build your own situation where they can construct their own boring cheese tortilla if they so choose. They have all the power to do so and it took no more effort on my end. Win.
I teach and educate my kids along the way. I do this because I want them to understand why certain C.R.A.P. foods taste so good to us, and also why those foods are not ideal for our bodies to feel their best. But, I also do this so that I don’t have to say “no” so often. I hate saying no, and I am sure you do too. I instead say, “Read the ingredient list.” They know if the ingredient list if super long, words they can’t pronounce, and one of the first ingredients is sugar, it’s probably a no-go for the cart. They are learning a skill and I’m not just arbitrarily saying “no, because I’m the mom.” We also discuss, how real, whole foods are growing, feel-good foods. They know that ice cream, organic or not, doesn’t make them feel as good as eating a fresh, ripe watermelon. They understand it and they feel it. This all helps them make good decisions and bad decisions, on their own.
Don’t offer them new foods at dinner time when they are less hungry and less interested in trying something new. I know we put a lot of focus around dinner time and getting the kids to eat certain things at this meal, but, there is a better shot of them trying something new earlier in the day. Get them when they’re hungry and when they are more relaxed. I love after school time when mine are starving and in a pretty good mood because they’re about to come home and chill. Also, just let the food be what it is, without masking too much or putting yourself through that added struggle of creating a secret masterpiece. I like putting a few of their favorite fruits, vegetables, crackers and then something new on the board. They can see it, smell it, taste it and maybe not like it today. But maybe tomorrow.
Not like pose for instagram, but let them see what you are choosing to eat. Let them see you choosing better foods most of the time. And, let them see you get the junky treat you want sometimes too, so they know you make good decisions most of the time, but sometimes you just want a bag of cheesy poofs too. They don’t need a dysfunctional relationship around food, so it’s important for you to know the messages you are sending them. This also involves trying new foods you might not want to, or food you think you don’t like as well. Model for them, they are absorbing it all.
Remember, they’re kids and we also don’t want to make eating a stressful experience for any of us. So chill out. Guide them with light hand holding and create curiosity around those better foods that help us all feel good. Less games, less tactics and less pressure. We all need less pressure.
Jenny is a writer, cooking coach, and host of Cliffs Notes Kitchen, where she shows how simple, bite-sized shifts with minimal effort, can create lasting changes in your health. You can find more of her articles here.