How to get your kids to make better food choices

Anybody who knows me should know how passionate I am about food and health and lifestyle, and how they all interlink. I am a huge advocate for eating yourself healthy, believing that the fuel you put into your body will determine what you get out – you can’t put nonsense in and expect positive results. It doesn’t work like that. If you neglect to give a plant water, oxygen, sunlight, and soil with nutrients in the plant will die – same with the human body. If you don’t eat proper food, with actual nutrients in, drink enough water, and get enough sleep you will feel like rubbish. And probably look like it as well. This is even more true and important when it comes to kids. They are still growing and thus in need of nutrients and calories to feed this growth. Usually, every last kJ of energy that goes into their little bodies are burned up by all their running around, and if you allow that energy to come from empty food sources you cannot be surprised if they crash violently.

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So often parents complain about their “difficult” kids, and so often the kids are difficult because of the food that they are allowed to, or forced to, eat. Preservatives, colourants, and sugar all have detrimental effects on not only the mood and behaviour of the child, but also on their development. An increase in childhood asthma-sufferers have been linked to an increase in the use of preservatives. Kids with ADHD or other spectrum disorders are encouraged to cut out any and all colourants from their diet as these have been linked to an increase in hyperactive behaviour. And sugar, oh sugar. The evilest of all evil. Highly addictive, it comes cloaked in many disguises, and it wreaks havoc as far as it goes.

So what are you to do? Take charge! When A1 was diagnosed with SPD (a spectrum disorder) the first thing we did was change her diet. No processed food. No sweets. Limited starch, and the little she was allowed to have had to be whole wheat, as unrefined as possible, with little or no salt, and definitely no added sugar of any kind. We cut out granola, shakes, and all formula – especially Pediasure! She has never been allowed honey, dried fruit, and fruit juice (because yes, fruit sugar – fructose – is still a sugar so it does the same damage as any other sugar, and honey is almost 70% fructose), and still only gets these things in very special circumstances. By just changing her diet we saw a remarkable improvement, almost immediately. Even now, 2 years and many coping techniques later, we still revert back to our strict diet whenever her behaviour start going a bit pear-shaped.

But, be warned – it sounds a lot easier than what it is! Healthy eating is not very child-friendly, not in today’s world were convenience, cost, and status dictates what goes on our plates. So to make it easier, here are my top 10 tips to making better food choices for your kids, and to get them to actually eat the food:

  1. Know your kids. Know how often they need to eat, what can influence their appetite, and what can put them off. A1 is not a big eater. She will take a bite or 2 and that will be enough for her. I always joke that both my kids are Noakes-babies – although they love carbs, they thrive on fat and veggies! Give A1 a breakfast of eggs and bacon and she can go all day (no meltdowns!). Give her a bowl of oats or porridge and 2 hours later she is starving, plus a meltdown will most probably be on the cards. A2 is always hungry, and eats almost anything, but she is a lot less difficult when she snacked on biltong and veggie sticks than when she had rice cakes.
  2. Plan ahead. Don’t be caught off-guard. Both kids get extremely cranky and difficult when they are hungry, so I always pack a selection of fruit, yogurt, nuts, biltong, dry wors, veggie sticks etc. to ward off an attack. When on the road this also means I don’t have to rely on take-aways or fast food if, or rather when, they get hungry.
  3. Be the example you would like them to follow. Let that be a lesson to us all – you can’t “secretly” have a chocolate for lunch and then berate the kids for refusing dinner because they want marshmallows. Lead by example and they will follow.
  4. Only positive comments at mealtime. Praise good food choices, and ignore bad ones. And never threaten with or because of food, saying things like “eat your veggies or you can’t go out to play”. You don’t want to create hang-ups and fear associated with food. Also, food should not be a reward!
  5. Introduce new foods slowly, but persistently. They don’t have to like it, but they must at least try it. Have a rule that they must take 2 bites of everything on their plate. Then if they don’t like it they can leave it, until next time when they have to take the 2 bites again. Sometimes tastes takes a while to grow on you, and kids must learn that acquiring tastes takes practice and exposure.
  6. My husband’s favourite tip: Dip it. Veggies are much more interesting, and sometimes tasty, when they are dipped in hummus, cream cheese, dressing, etc. Make your own to ensure you stick to the fresh and real-food rule.
  7. Stick to full cream and full fat. Kids’ brains need fat in order to grow and expand, and human bodies need fat in order to absorb and utilise the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat also makes you feel fuller for longer, curbs your sugar cravings, and gives you a lot more energy if you are fat-adapted than relying on carbs. Low fat products are always high in sugar so tread carefully!
  8. Don’t substitute one evil with another. As I already mentioned, we feel that all sugar is sugar, and therefore we make no distinction. Our kids have unsweetened yogurt, tea, etc.
  9. Get the kids involved in the kitchen. That is my go-to tip with A1 at the moment. Whatever she “cooks’ she will eagerly taste and more often than not end up liking it. If she wasn’t involved in the process she just refuses no matter what we do.
  10. Allow occasional treats. Nothing should be forbidden, you should just be so full and satisfied from the good stuff that there is no room for the “bad” stuff. And then occasional treats becomes exactly that – occasional. Having a no-treat rule creates the ideal breeding ground for cravings and in most cases leads to overindulging when given the chance.

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Sounds easy enough right? Yeah right. But as with other things worth having, it sometimes takes a bit more effort. To keep you motivated, just think of the rewards. We have it within our power to ensure the next generation are well balanced, well fed, and have wonderful body image! So be strong.