A doctor’s advice to help kids enjoy more fruit and vegetables
Simple tips to help your kids develop a long-term healthy relationship with what’s on their plate.
As a family medicine doctor, the more I read the latest evidence-based information about feeding our children, the more I realise the importance of giving them the best start in life with a nutrient dense whole food plant-based diet.
Although as a mother of two young plant-powered boys, I also realise how disheartening it can be when you have spent precious time planning, buying and cooking a delicious healthy plant-based meal, only for it to be thrown on the floor.
Doctor’s orders are to not give up, your effort is worthwhile!
Plant-based diets have many advantages, including being lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, while also delivering more fibre, antioxidants, folic acid, vitamins C and E, carotenoids, and a host of other beneficial phytochemicals.
Children eating a plant-based diet are much more likely to be in the healthy weight range. Evidence is clear that childhood obesity strongly correlates with being obese as an adult, illustrating just how important a healthy start in life is.
I hope the following tips are helpful in the daily challenge of feeding fussy, stubborn small people, ultimately increasing your child’s intake of whole foods and developing a long-term healthy relationship with what’s on their plate.
1. You only have control over the ‘when’ and ‘what’, don’t sweat the rest
Meal times can be stressful. When I’m feeling frustrated that my kids won’t eat something I remind myself of the ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘which’ and ‘how much’ rules. As a parent I have control over ‘when’ my child eats and ‘what’ is served. The child’s role is to decide ‘which’ foods they will eat and ‘how much’. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink and toddlers can be more stubborn than any donkey.
Build a plate for your child that incorporates some healthy foods you know they like and then also offer something new or yet to be liked. The trick is not to panic if they don’t eat much for a meal. They are likely to make up for the calories with healthier foods later in the day so try to avoid offering something else less nutritious.
2. New food is alien and must be analysed
For young children, new foods can be overwhelming. Children use all of their senses to explore foods; how it feels, what it looks like, how it smells, what it sounds like when you poke it. All of this enquiry must first be conducted before it will receive the ‘OK to be eaten’. Therefore it is important we repeatedly give the child the opportunity to analyse the food, often serving it in different forms, so they can become confident to eat it.
3. It is ok to hate brussel sprouts
My kids actually like brussel sprouts but it is ok if your child has some foods they dislike. Heck, we all have some foods we don’t fancy.
4. Make it fun
Look inside for your inner child when you serve food to kids. Remember to be enthusiastic, make food colourful and fun. Kids love choice, so giving them two options can be a winner at our house. I like to use cookie cutters to make vegetables (like cucumber) into fun shapes. Talking positively about food is important.
Try to avoid statements like ‘eat your broccoli, it will make you big and strong’, no one likes to be told what to do especially kids. Instead use descriptive words, such as ‘can you hear how delicious and crunchy this apple sounds when you take a bite’. This makes food sound exciting and catches their curiosity. At our house we call broccoli baby trees and at times we are all dinosaurs eating our broccoli trees (all the while making dinosaur sounds).
5. Which brings me to my next tip, role modeling
Children’s brains are wired to observe and copy adult role models. We learnt this the hard way when our three year old started saying ‘crap!’ every time something upset him. It is super important for your kids to see you eating healthy foods, sit with them at meal times and show them how you eat and enjoy healthy meals. It’s really not fair to have rules for them that don’t apply to you.
6. What you bring home (or order online) is what you and your kids will eat
I often ask parents at my GP clinic what they had for dinner the night before and commonly I hear potato chips and chicken nuggets. Parents often shrug and tell me that’s all their child will eat. I have to remind people that if they are buying chicken nuggets then there is a high chance that their children will eat chicken nuggets. Their children are not the ones in charge of the weekly grocery shop.
7. Make food a family affair
Get kids involved in buying, preparing and cooking healthy foods and they will be much more likely to eat them. Cooking is an essential skill for a healthy life. Make meals a priority, turn off the TV and sit down together as a family at least once a day. For older kids, talk to them about your values and why you choose to eat this way, so they can be better informed to make healthy food choices of their own as they grow older.
It takes a village to raise a child. What you do at home is super important but we also need to support each other and advocate for what is important to us. If this is something you are passionate about, talk to your local school or kindy about the benefits of whole plant foods, get involved in community events, write to your local council about ideas you have.
I want to see our chronic health pandemic improve. I want to preserve our beautiful planet for my children to explore. Change happens from the bottom up, vote with your forks and trolleys and watch your children thrive.
If you have any great whole food, plant based recipes I would love to hear about them, please reach out!
Dr Taisia Cech is a GP who is board certified in lifestyle medicine and holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition. She has a lifestyle clinic, The Healthstyle Doctor, in Nelson, New Zealand, which offers individual and group lifestyle support, both locally and virtually.