A healthy diet for children looks similar to a healthy diet for adults. Only, more of it. Growing children need more calories.
But, like adults, not just any kind of calorie. Nutrient-dense calories.
However, if you’re reading this article, chances are high that your children haven’t been eating nutrient-dense foods. They’ve been eating more junk foods than you want to think about. And if they’re over the age of eight or nine, if they haven’t become downright addicted to certain unhealthy foods like cookies, chips, candy bars, and fast food fare, they will have developed a fondness for them such that they don’t want to give them up!
The reason? Either you modeled such unhealthy eating, or they saw other people gorging on such foods and begged to eat the same until they wore you out and you gave in, hoping that when they got older, their tastes would gravitate toward healthier choices.
And now you realize that probably won’t be the case.
So here you are, wanting to feed your family more nutritious foods, but facing resistance at every turn.
I can’t guarantee the following steps will bring about complete conversions. And it won’t be a short or easy road. But hopefully, if you follow the steps your children will eventually start to appreciate the flavor of more natural foods, and voluntarily lessen their consumption of junk foods to some extent.
The first step in knowing what a healthy diet for children truly looks like, is to check out a book on healthy eating, like my book, Simple Diet, Beautiful You. Once you have those principles well in hand, you can begin to implement the following steps.
And, yes, as the title indicates, these steps will work on yourself and (hopefully) stubborn spouses, as well. 😉
Step one: Give everyone a heads-up.
Don’t all of a sudden start forcing everyone to start dinner with a large salad and give up all their sugary snacks without them having any foreknowledge of it. Get the whole family together and…
Yes, apologize. Tell them you’re sorry that you’ve been neglecting your duties as their caregiver by allowing them to eat foods that will have a negative impact on their health in the future if they don’t change their habits.
Then, with as much enthusiasm as you can muster, as genuinely as you can express that enthusiasm, let them know that you’re going to be slowly introducing healthier snacks and meals. Be quick to assure them that they won’t have to give up all their favorite junk foods, and that what you’re going to be serving them will still be tasty.
Step two: Educate your children.
And your spouse, if necessary. Have them watch food-based documentaries, such as Forks Over Knives, Super-Size Me, and Fat, Sick, And Nearly Dead. Together, read any one of the number of anti-sugar books available. Talk about what you all have learned. Make sure to emphasize that while children and young adults often seem to be able to get away with eating unhealthy food without consequences, when they hit middle-age – and sometimes before – the consequences can be terrible, even life-threatening.
Step three: Replace conventional store-bought cookies with a better option.
Ideally, bake the cookies yourself. If it’s within your budget, order einkorn multi-purpose flour and use that, as it is the ancestor of all wheats and has hardly any gluten in it.
Whatever kind of flour you use, look for recipes that replace the butter/vegetable shortening in cookies, at least in part, with applesauce or mashed bananas. And butter is always a better choice than shortening, which is very high in the heart-attack-causing trans fats. Reduce the sugar in the recipe by about a third.
If you don’t have a lot of time to bake cookies, make it a weekend project when the kids help you.
At the very least, start purchasing cookies from a health-food store which have no trans fats and more natural sources of sugar.
Step four: Gradually ease desserts out of your meal plans.
If your family are dessert eaters, replace the usual sugary concoction two nights a week with a mix of berries and sliced bananas, along with a homemade cookie or two. Every two weeks, subtract one more night of unhealthy desserts, replacing it with fruit. When you’re down to eating fruit and cookies for dessert five nights a week, start pulling away the cookies, one night at a time. For dessert on the other two nights, search for healthier replacements for what you usually serve. Whether you eventually completely eliminate the conventional desserts, or eliminate dessert-eating altogether, is something your family needs to decide on.
If you do decide to transition away from eating dessert, make sure you encourage everyone to get enough to eat of the main meal.
Step five: Reduce eating out.
Okay, if you’re reading this during the COVID-19 pandemic (when I’m writing it), that’s a no-brainer. Not a whole lot of people are eating out at restaurants right now, even if the area where you live has “opened up” non-essential businesses. So perhaps you’ve already discovered the joys (and money-saving benefits) of homemade meals.
On the other hand, take-out has been allowed during the pandemic. If your family frequently takes advantage of that convenience, gradually reduce the number of nights you do so.
Start working on this step somewhere in the middle of transitioning away from desserts.
Step six: Start offering healthy snacks.
Click here for ten ideas for healthy snacks for kids. Do it gradually, starting with maybe once a day, two to three times a week, until at least one of the snacks every day is a healthy choice.
Step seven: Don’t restock unhealthy snacks.
As your family’s supply of processed snacks runs out, don’t restock them.
Yes, you’ll probably get whining. And resistance. Deal with it. You’re the caregiver. Act like it, and put your foot down. It’s your job to train your children in good habits and right ways of thinking.
If you give your children an allowance, tell them that from now on, they can use that money to buy junk food if they really want it. But you are no longer going to stock such items in the pantry.
Step eight: Serve more vegetables with dinner.
And make them as appealing as you can. For example, color the salad as much as possible with tomatoes, grated carrots, bell pepper, etc, and provide tasty salad dressings.
Provide a variety of sauces – soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, barbecue sauce, salsa – with which to top steamed or stir-fried veggies.
Step nine: Redo breakfast.
If your kids regularly consume pastries – doughnuts, Pop Tarts, sweet rolls, etc. – for breakfast, that needs to stop. Yesterday. No more.
Dried cereals, even those labeled “natural” or “organic,” or (falsely) claiming to contain 100% of daily vitamins and minerals, though better than the sweet pastries (the unsweetened cereals, that is), are still not the healthiest breakfast choice.
Sprouted grain toast with nut butter and a fruit spread, smoothies made with fruit and seeds or nuts, eggs with fruit and/or sprouted grain toast, oatmeal or rice topped with sliced banana and maybe a sprinkling of cinnamon – they all provide better nutrition than the Standard American Breakfast, and are tasty as well as filling.
Step ten: Make dinners simple.
Ease back on indigestion-causing dishes such as heavy pasta-meat combos and meat-laden sandwiches. Instead, serve a simply-cooked meat with potatoes or rice with a salad and/or some sort of steamed vegetables.
Of course, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, use non-animal protein foods instead of meat.
Speaking of that…
Step eleven: Introduce plant-based meals.
At least twice a week, serve up a dish that is 100% plant-based. If you make them tasty with herbs, spices, and/or sauces, your children might be surprised at how much they like them. Click here for five easy vegan recipes to get you started.
You can do it!
Children under the age of seven are generally pretty flexible and open when it comes to trying out new foods and eating lifestyles. Over the age of seven? Meh, not so much.
But if you slowly incorporate the above steps over the period of a few months, I believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well your family as a whole will be eating, as well as how much more willing your children are to choose healthy foods over junk foods.