By Kristy Malone, Nutritional Therapist
Food: it’s a part of our everyday lives, and the focus of much of our time and energy. It’s how we stay fueled, how we nurture those we love, how we comfort ourselves, and how we connect with one another. Yet the simple question, “what’s for dinner?” can feel daunting for many parents.
The food children consume plays a crucial role in their development. Every cell, tissue, and organ requires specific nutrients for growth and repair. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (or “SAD”) – with its abundance of refined sugar, highly processed oils, chemicals and additives – often falls short of meeting children’s nutritional needs. As a result, chronic illness, allergies, food sensitivities, and behavioral issues are occurring at alarming rates.
Although most of us know that it’s important for kids to eat healthy, modern society would have us believe that processed, nutrient-deficient foods are the cheap and convenient choice, while properly prepared whole foods are the more expensive and time-consuming option. Even for conscientious parents who strive to put healthier meals on the table, it’s easy to make well-intentioned mistakes due to misinformation and conflicting nutritional messages.
The good news is that it is possible to feed your family in a way that’s healthy, enjoyable, and sanity preserving. The great news is that a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet tastes delicious and satiates the appetite. But when I speak to my clients about the importance of healthy eating for the whole family, I talk to them about more than just what to put on the dinner table and into their mouths. A holistic view of healthy eating includes our relationships to food. For children, learning the importance of nutrition, developing good habits, and forming positive associations can promote self-worth and lifelong wellness.
Here are a few tips to point you and your loved ones in the right direction:
- Get educated. A nutritional therapist or other holistic practitioner can provide you with the tools and knowledge to make health-promoting choices for you and your family. They can also provide you with resources for meal planning and preparation, locally sourced produce and meats, and practical strategies for eating healthfully based on your family’s budget and schedule. You can search for a practitioner in your area using this tool from nutritionaltherapy.com. Many nutritional therapists, myself included, are happy to work with both local and long-distance clients.
- Tell a positive narrative about food. If you serve your family a dish they don’t particularly like, you might hear complaints like “It’s yucky” or “I don’t like this.” First, try not to be too deeply offended, and pat yourself on the back for introducing something new. Then, respond with positive dialogue like “I’m glad you are finding out what you like and don’t like by trying a little bit of everything.” Or, “It’s ok to try something and decide it isn’t your favorite.” Their feelings can be acknowledged and validated while they are asked to eat what’s on their plate.
- Make mealtimes about connection. As often as possible, try to make meals a whole-family activity that involves sitting at the table with no TV, phones, or other outside distractions. Dinnertime traditions can cultivate connection and positive interactions. Avoid confrontation or focusing on negative behavior at the table. Research shows that kids who have regular shared family meals have better grades, healthier relationships, reduced risk of obesity, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors like drinking and drugs.
- Encourage exploration. Have children be involved with meal preparation in ways that are appropriate to their developmental level. For example, you might consider taking your child to the farmer’s market and allowing them to select an item to incorporate into a weekly meal. This encourages greater connection to their food, to their community, and broadens their nutritional horizons.
- Eating healthy is a process and a practice. Throughout the stages of the family lifecycle you will encounter new challenges. Some days, the only way to get everyone fed is to order pizza. Some days, path of least resistance is to let the kids eat cereal in front of the TV. That’s okay. It’s the regular habits and the nutritional education you give your family that will determine their long-term health and relationship with food.