I blame it on the chicken nugget. That moment on a family trip when my daughter had her first fast-food chicken nugget experience. As she ate that salty, crispy, greasy morsel, her eyes widened, she smiled and I knew vegetables and whole grains would never be looked at the same again.
And so the battles began. We begged, pleaded, bribed, threatened, everything we could think of to get her to eat something green or a piece of protein-laded meat. When she complained that the carrots were too “mushy” or the oatmeal was too “lumpy,” we offered her raw and crunchy options. Short of a few fruits that made the cut, nothing seemed to inspire her to want to eat anything nutritious.
Click the button below to start this article in quick view.
Why do we focus so much on a healthy diet?
Given the prevalence of dinnertime struggles, it’s surprising parents don’t’ give up on the idea altogether. But, as we all know, healthy eating is essential for our children’s growth and physical well-being. According to Jeanna Segal, Ph.D., a healthy diet is also critical for their mental health as it can contribute to increasing their ability to learn and prevent conditions such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD.
As a woman who has struggled with their own body image, I had always been concerned with ensuring my daughter had a healthy relationship with food and tried to avoid overeating, and undereating. I knew the ongoing food conflict was detrimental to this goal. So, what did I do? I waved the white flag and stopped the war.
The Mayo Clinic notes that trying to force a child to eat when not hungry or to eat a certain food can “ignite – or reinforce – a power struggle over food.” Instead, I opted to do nothing, or very little, in trying to convince my little one that my way was the right and only way. I stopped obsessing over every bite that my daughter ate and refused to do the dinner battle. By reframing how I approached food and mealtime, I was able to take back control of the situation and get my daughter to make healthy choices for herself.
Ignore the labels
We stopped using words like ‘healthy,’ ‘unhealthy,’ and ‘junk’ to describe food. Without realizing it, using these words can create an oppositional environment where one food is ‘good’ and another is ‘bad.’ As Edward Abramson, author of Emotional Eating, says “foods are not intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad.” He recalls a former client who told him “french fries are the work of the devil,” but “french fries are just french fries.”
Invariably, children will often choose the ‘bad’ food – typically because it is processed in a way to be highly desirable to our palates. But also because as children grow and develop their own independence, they can perceive eating the ‘bad’ food as a way to separate themselves from what their parents want.
By removing this language, we tried to level the playing field. We removed the idea of ‘forbidden,’ and therefore desired, from all forms of food. Sure, we wanted our daughter to eat sweet potatoes instead of french fries, but that was not going to happen if the french fries were seen as the enemy and a way to create strife in our house.
Focus on the experience
Instead of focusing on what our child ate, we considered how she was eating. We started practicing relaxed eating and realized that once we as parents calmed down and were less stressed about the nutritional value of her meal, we all enjoyed the time much more. Our daughter didn’t have to expend her energy on fighting us. The sight of green beans and chicken on her plate in the past would have led to an hour of cajoling her to eat while she tried to refused.
Now, we talked about our day (I know, sounds cliché, but it worked), favorite TV shows, and whether Barbie was going to be a rock star or doctor today. As we engaged her in the conversation, she would ‘forget’ that she hated green beans and they disappeared from the plate.
Part of the experience is also in teaching children where food comes from the life skills of cooking for themselves. Kirsten Slyter from Rasmussen College writes that “kids are more likely to give a new food a try if they have had a hand in making it.” While preschoolers may not be able to use a knife, they can stir ingredients or help choose items at the grocery store. As they get older, they can learn more skills.
Be a role model
Through all of this, we tried our best to be good role models for healthy eating. We consistently prepared nutritious options and ate them without any fanfare. We wanted to normalize our eating patterns and not make it seem like eating a spinach salad was worthy of sainthood. This also meant we, as parents, openly enjoyed foods that lacked much nutritional value. We ate potato chips and candy within moderation and it gave us the opportunity to model appropriate portion sizes.
In particular, as the mom of a young daughter, I was conscious of modeling a positive relationship with food. This meant avoiding excessive calorie counting and making negative comments about my own body and weight.
The changes didn’t happen overnight, but with time, meals no longer presented a battle of wills and healthy eating became the norm in our household. We try to keep eating fun and make trying new things an adventure. My child still eats chicken nuggets, but she also eats a good balance of whole foods and all of us are less stressed.
READ NEXT : These 6 Easy Snack Hacks Will Change Your Life
content: ‘/ ‘;