I'm not gonna lie getting kids, especially teenagers, to eat healthy on a consistent basis is not easy. They have that "I'm gonna live forever" mentality, which actually is quite appropriate for their age but makes trying to
educate them on prevention and long term health challenging. Hopefully this isn't the first time you've talked with your children about the importance of eating a healthy diet, and if it is then no time like the present to get started!
Teaching a child to eat healthy today is very different than 10-20 years ago. Thinking back on how I taught my daughters to eat healthy, both are in their 20s now, versus how I am currently teaching my 16 year old son, there is quite a big difference. I find I talk to my son more about the quality of the food we eat today as well as the different types of food and food choices. The increased risks of pesticides and herbicides, as well as the huge increase of factory farming, industrialized packaged and processed foods make eating healthy today much more tricky than years past. And the temptations are everywhere!
To get started here are 5 important steps to take when teaching your children how and why to eat healthy - kids, tweens, and teens alike. These are some of the same steps I used when teaching my own children. Oh, and I highly recommend doing the 5 steps in order. Number 1 is most important, all the way down to number 5. Not to say that number 5 isn't as important as number 1, but I think you will have more success if you do these steps in order. ;-)
1. Actions are far more powerful than words
If you yourself are not eating a healthful diet, nothing you can say to your child will make a difference. Your children are observant and will take in everything you do and say, even if it's on a subconscious level. So if you are passing up fresh whole foods like fruits and vegetables for processed packaged foods like chips, protein drinks, and bars, then it is more likely your children will do the same.
2. If it's in the house you AND your kids will eat it. This goes for good food as well as bad food. That's just human nature. And besides, why push it? Do you really think you have that much will power over cookies, cakes, and chips laying around in your kitchen cupboard? I know I don't, nor does the rest of my family. If it's there, in a weak moment, we will eat it. So get rid of the junk and just don't buy any more of the poor quality snack foods that are overflowing the grocery store shelves. Not necessary, expensive, and out of sight out of mind.
3. Think of adding good quality, whole foods first, before removing any of the poor quality food you and your children are used to eating. Adding versus subtracting is always more doable and will feel less restrictive when first getting started.
Example: At dinnertime, before getting rid of the bread rolls or buttery garlic bread that accompany your spaghetti and salad, add another serving of greens to your plate or make an additional vegetable to go with your meal. Eat a double serving of salad and veggies along with the rest of your meal. Over time, by crowding out the bad food with the good food, you will start to feel more vibrant and have such increased energy that you won't want to continue with a bunch of the junk. Same with your kids. They will feel full from the increased amount of good food on their plates and will naturally slow down on the unhealthy less nutritious junk food. AND...if they don't slow down on the junk food at first, don't panic. You are planting the seeds. Keep calm, be quiet, and just continue to 'crowd out' at every single meal. The shift will slowly start to happen.
There are not many foods I tell my children they simply cannot eat - if any - I actually cannot even think of one. Of course I would LOVE to tell them not to eat this or not to eat that, but honestly no one likes to be told what to do, including (probably most especially) teenagers. I do however inform my children of their food choices and why some foods are better than others. It's an open dialogue, doesn't take up a lot of time, no lectures, just part of the regular conversation. The goal is you would like your children to eventually make their own healthy choices independent of you, their parents, looking over their shoulder.
4. First thing to 'add in' when you've been 'crowding out' is more fruits and vegetables. ALWAYS more fruits and vegetables. You cannot over do it, I promise. All kinds, all ways. Keep adding and experimenting until you find at least 2-3 fruits and 2-3 veggies that you know your child will eat. Once you have a small list, then implement at least one of these in every single meal ALONG with an additional fruit or veggie that you or your child perhaps have never tried. Always work on expanding your palate, as well as your child's palate, when it comes to eating fruits and veggies.
At first, to make things more appealing and tasty for your child, additional fruits and veggies can be in the form of smoothies and fruit bowls, bananas with almond butter or organic peanut butter, veggies and hummus, avocado on toast with a slice of tomatoes and sprouts, roasted veggies are always a hit in our house, mashed potatoes, sliced potatoes or sweet potato wedges etc. Just keep trying different things and enjoy the process of experimenting.
When I am trying a new food at home, or a new cooking method, I let my family know. And I always ask their opinion. Like truly ask, without getting offended. If it's something that does not look appealing to my teenage son, I do require he at least taste it - take one bite - if he doesn't like it he certainly doesn't have to eat it. We are just experimenting here, which is why I make sure to already have an additional fruit or veggie on his plate that I know he will like and eat.
Cooking, experimenting, and eating in the kitchen should be open, care free, and a family affair, not strict and rigid. And although I wish my son would participate in the cooking part of the process, for now, he is just not interested. BUT, when we all sit down together at the table to eat, or when he smells something different cooking in the kitchen, it's an open conversation. This is the time we talk, even if it's briefly, about the specific food items I'm cooking, why I am wanting to try it, and that I hope it tastes so good that it's a "keeper" for the entire family! Get the picture? These conversations with the kids should remain open and casual.
5. Focus on whole foods. Literally the words 'whole foods.' What do they mean to you? Cuz I know the words 'whole foods' can mean very different things to different people. For me whole plant based foods are things like whole fruits and veggies, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, yams, nuts, seeds, legumes and more. The British dictionary definition of whole food means "food that has been refined or processed as little as possible and is eaten in its natural state..."(1) Still, for some, switching from white bread to whole wheat bread would be considered eating more whole foods. For others it would be moving from whole wheat bread to a sprouted raw type of bread. And still, for others it is eliminating breads all together and eating only whole plant foods like sweet potatoes, squash, and yams. So it's important to really look at where your starting point is and then figure out how far you want to go from there.
Make the changes comfortable and again, experiment and have fun. You may start with just focusing on processed sugar and work at getting that out of your family's diet. This might mean eliminating sugars like white cane sugar and brown sugar, but then maybe you still want to keep things like honey and maple syrup, or coconut sugar or maple sugar in your diet. Or perhaps you want to start with eliminating all added oils or salt to your diet. Just pick one thing to get started. It can get confusing at times, and it is a process, but just take it slow and take it one step at a time. Remember it's all about progressing and moving forward, not so much about getting to any kind of finish line. And, from my own personal experience, I think it is best to work on one thing at a time - like processed sugars, or oils, or animal protein, or dairy etc. Pick one thing you think you can work on successfully and go from there.
So, these are the first few important steps to take when working on getting you and your family moving toward a healthier way of eating. It's a commitment for sure, but more like a commitment to focus on healthy food and the overall health of your family. These changes don't happen overnight (unless you get a pretty significant health scare and choose to dive in full force) but generally speaking these changes take time. And you will want to take it slow in order for the habits to stick. Diets don't work, the all or nothing approach can be too stressful and taxing on the family.
So take these 5 steps seriously, commit to them 100%, and then just go for it. See how you FEEL. Checking in on how you feel will be a key indicator toward your success.
Work at it, play with it, laugh as you go, and don't give up! Keep trying, progressing, and fine tuning. By doing these steps your children will learn, and grow, and eventually start to make healthy lifestyle choices on their own, and then one day they will do the same for their family, and then their family etc. etc.
FYI - if you're interested in learning more about how to transition you and your family to a plant based way of eating, come join me for my new online program starting May 15th. Click HERE to learn more!