Growing a Healthy Home

~contributed by sallenrd

Fix my child’s bad habits

In my practice as a registered dietitian I meet a lot of moms and dads who bring their children to me to be nutritionally “fixed”. It’s as if the fact that their children are not eating a lot of healthy foods and prefer “junk” is the fault of the child, and perhaps if they hear about proper nutrition from me then it will somehow make them eat better. The ironic thing is that often times the conversation eventually turns back around to the parents. During one particular consult an 11-year-old client turned to his mom and dad after looking at the healthy food models on my desk and said, “I would love to eat these foods. They look really good. But I don’t buy the groceries.” The parents’ defense always seems to be, “I buy junk because they won’t eat the good stuff.” Have they ever been exposed to it? Do you eat it? Did you know it can take up to 15 presentations of fruits and vegetables before a child will incorporate it into his or her diet? If only we could have this conversation the day your babies are born….

Right from the start

A child’s health and nutrition starts as soon as she takes her first breath. For those fortunate enough to be able to breast feed an environment is established in the child’s GI tract that promotes proper digestion of nutrients, maximizes growth, and establishes a resilient immune system and a healthy brain. And from the day that child looks her parents in the eyes and recognizes their existence in the world it’s as if they are saying, “Teach me how to live this life well and I will not disappoint you.”…and that’s when the conversation should begin. Children need to understand that we don’t eat simply to make our grumbling stomachs quiet down. Nor should we need to eat every time we feel the slightest bit hungry. Children need to know that they should eat plenty of healthy proteins in order to grow tall and strong and to be resilient against injury and infection. They need to know that fruits and vegetables are what keep their “tummies” healthy and give them vitamins and that every color of the produce rainbow is important. They need to know how to keep their bones and their muscles strong and their brains active and alert. And they need to know that if they feed their body everything it needs then they will be able to conquer all of the challenges that life presents.

Establishing a nutritious home

Children are born with an innate sense of how much energy they need on any given day. They know when they’re growing and they know when they are not. Infants will turn their heads away when they are full. Toddlers will ask to “get down” from their high chair. Wild animals are the only other creatures that do this. So, parents, listen to your children. They have the “how much” part mastered. What they have no control over is the “what” or the “when”. That’s where you come in. You are the gatekeepers for the nutrition status of your home. Provide lean proteins so that they can grow to their fullest potential. Provide fruits and vegetables from all colors of the rainbow; whole fruits, not the juice. Provide lots of water for proper hydration.  And never tell them, “You need to take a few more bites.” Listen to them on that one. Talk to them about the foods they’re eating starting with the trip to the grocery store or farmers’ market. Let them help you choose the produce. Let them help you wash and prepare it. Allow them to help cook it, too. Even young children can use a butter knife to cut vegetables. Involve them every step of the way. My two boys used to hate grocery shopping, and I used to hate grocery shopping because they hated it, so I invented a game (of sorts.) While I chose the produce I needed for recipes that I was planning to prepare I sent the two of them off (under eagle eye supervision) to choose a vegetable or fruit we had never seen before. They loved this game. We would bring home strange things, look them up on the internet and learn about where they came from, what health benefits they possessed and then find a recipe and prepare it together. Then at dinnertime we each took a bite and voted: thumbs up or thumbs down. We discovered several produce items that we really love now, but never would have tried had we not ventured out of our comfort zone. For example, did you know Ugli fruit is from Jamaica? It’s a cross between grapefruit, oranges and tangerines and is absolutely juicy and delicious, although you would never know by its Shar pei-like appearance. Lastly, establish a schedule for when food is to be consumed. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and 1-3 snacks throughout the day at set times. This will prevent them from “grazing” all day and overeating when they aren’t really hungry. Give them choices so that they have some control over their environment, but ensure that the choices are all healthy.

Start the conversation early. Be strong in your commitment to feed your family well. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but (to quote my friend Amy) “building the foundation out of bricks” ensures a strong house, inside and out.

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