A family health coach explains why healthy diet doesn't have to be boring, even for a toddler.
Eating healthily is vital for our short- and long-term health — yet, we are surrounded by unhealthy food designed to be delicious. Have your and your loved ones fallen into that trap? Does your family need a dietary revolution? Take it slow; a lasting change takes time. Marta Pawłowska, a family health coach, talks about how to build healthy habits in young children and how to convince the adults in your life that eating a healthy diet doesn’t have to hurt.
Aleteia: How do you convince a toddler to eat healthy food?
Marta Pawłowska: First of all, it’s important to make a slow evolution on your child’s plate, not a revolution. If a child eats fish sticks and fries all his life and suddenly you present him with steamed fish and carrots, he’ll obviously not want to eat it. Change should be gradual. For example, leave the fish sticks for a while but take away the fries, and give him a sugar-free tomato sauce instead of ketchup. If you are trying to introduce whole grain pasta, mix it with regular pasta, in the beginning adding one-third of whole grain. In two months, make it half. If you always gave your child fruit juice, start diluting it with water, first a third, then half water. Evolution, not revolution.
What about sweets and fast food?
Moderation in everything. Even a bar of chocolate, once in a while, doesn’t harm anyone. It’s important to make sure it’s not too often, and that we know what’s good and bad for us — not all chocolate bars are made the same, for instance — and what we should eat every day. Once in a while we certainly can indulge in a delicious piece of cake or even get food on the go if necessary. It’s not a crime.
Children can learn what a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner, is, and that every now and then they can have their favorite foods. You have to explain this to the children and pick the right arguments for their age. A three- or four-year-old will not understand why he shouldn’t have junk food. On the other hand, if you tell a teenager, “Don’t eat so much sugar, because it affects your acne and it will make it worse,” he will understand the connection. While a six-year-old will not understand that argument, he might respond to “If you eat so much sugar and chips you will not have the strength to run, and you will not be able to play soccer.”
Is offering sweets as a reward a bad idea? How can we change this habit if we already started?
By forming early habits, we are teaching our kids that there are better and worse foods. Saying, “We can go for ice cream if you pass your geography test,” seems harmless at first, but if we let ice cream become a reward, children come to understand that ice cream is a better, more desirable food. A better suggestion? Take your kids to the park, go to the movies or a playground, and if within the few hours spent together, go for a pizza, possibly ending with something sweet. Just don’t make the sweets the main “prize” for so-called good behavior.
So eating as a celebration of school success, for example, is not the best idea?
As a celebration, yes, definitely, yes. In the Old Testament, when we celebrate at the table, we celebrate also by sharing ourselves. Only we have forgotten that we can share not only food. And the idea of a celebration is such that while we share food, we should share ourselves too. Let’s sit down together, eat together. Let’s talk about what we like and dislike about food, let’s talk about food with our children. Let’s ask what they like, and let’s give them some things to choose from. “Would you like to eat chicken or fish today? Pasta or rice?”
Children should have a choice so they can learn to make their own choices and take responsibility for what they eat. It often seems to adults that children should live and eat as we decide. But then it often turns against us. Children often hear, “You must eat carrots because you are growing.” So, at the same table sits a child who must eat carrots and a dad who doesn’t because he doesn’t have to anymore. The child figures out, “When I grow up, I won’t have to eat carrots either.”
What about grandparents and aunts and uncles, who are used to a particular traditional cuisine?
Parents often tear their hair out in frustration, saying that visiting grandparents is like a trip to a candy factory. The food they want to make and eat is loaded with extra fat, sugar and refined carbs. But you can cook together and praise moms and grandmas for their healthier dishes. “Your peas and carrots are so delicious, could you make us more of those, please?”
“But this is how we used to eat and it didn’t kill us …”
We’ve all heard excuses like this. “My grandfather ate like this, and he was healthy.” It’s difficult to argue with such statements. But try explaining it like this: “Listen, when your grandfather lived, the mailman walked 10 miles every day. Today, he drives a car.”
More and more people lead a sedentary lifestyle. We drive our cars everywhere, so in fact, we need fewer calories, less fat, and less carbohydrates. Elderly people often do not know how to eat and cook differently for those changing needs. And only after you explain to them, with love, and show how to do it, can you effect change. So when we are working to change ourselves, our children or our parents, we need to do it with heart and take our time. Nothing happens immediately. Nothing worthwhile takes only a moment.