One of the most common questions I get is “How do I get my child to eat healthier?”. Any parent who cares about their child wants them to be happy, healthy and full of energy. But getting your kid to eat a single serving of vegetables a week can sometime feel like trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
Whether your child likes to play outside with friends or is the all-star softball player on her high school team, eating healthy will benefit them. But sitting your child down and telling them that they need to eat healthier is not the way to do it.
Awareness precedes change. But is your child aware of how they are currently eating and how it might be negatively affecting them? Most likely not – because kids can get away with suboptimal nutrition and still feel relatively normal. This is where simple education and linking the desired habit change to something that matters to them is where we begin.
I have a 4 year old daughter. She eats okay, but like many kids has her picky moments. Instead of saying “eat this because it’s good for you” or “eat this or you cannot leave the table” or worst of all “eat this or you don’t get dessert” (studies show this sort of bribery can lead to great likelihood of obesity, and emotional eating as adults) – we simply offer the food multiple times, and relate its benefits to what she cares about – which is playing with friends, and having energy.
At 4, you keep it simple – proteins are good for being strong, fruits and veggies are good for your heart, eyes, brain, etc. and healthy carbs are good for energy. “But what is a donut good for?” she might ask. This is where you explain, they are good and tasty, but not something we need to eat a lot of because then we don’t have enough room for the foods that help us grow stronger, faster, etc.
With older kids who are involved in sports you can get a little more nuanced. Using the “sports car with low grade fuel” analogy is a good start. You wouldn’t put mucky fuel in a high-powered sports car, would you? So why would you want to put sub-optimal fuel in your body and expect any different?
I’ve worked with many high school athletes who barely eat a breakfast. Maybe a bowl of cereal, or a Pop Tart – and then wonder why they have no energy throughout the day, and often bonk out at afterschool practice. Starting the day with solid nutrition – oats and fruit for carbs, eggs or yogurt for protein, and almond butter or flax seed is a great ultimate goal, but may also be very far from where they currently are.
This is where we start with small changes.
Maybe your child skips breakfast all together. Start there. Ask them “how do you feel throughout the day?”, “how is your mood, energy, etc?” – then ask them if they have ever thought about eating something before going to school. Start with anything here. Yes, anything – but giving A or B options can be a great way to still encourage certain foods, without fully taking away your child’s control and choice in the situation.
From there, over time, suggest small changes – after all you might be the one in charge of grocery shopping, so you ARE in control of what foods end up in the house…
Maybe they start with a piece of toast. Great! How about adding some protein? Egg? Ham? Cheese? Let them pick. Then how about adding some fruit? Then maybe two eggs, or cheese and ham… over the course of a month or so you can help progress some pretty big changes.
It all comes back to helping them feel in charge of choices and helping relate the importance of healthy eating to what they really care about.
For other meals throughout the day, focusing on a balance at each meal is ideal and the best way to keep this simple. Using the resources at https://www.myplate.gov/ is a solid start for finding balance in each meal.
As far as performance nutrition goes, each sports’ needs are different – but overall it comes back to being prepared, and having a balance of carbs and a little protein within 2 hours pre and post event (practice or game). I like using the hand as a gauge for portions – as larger people have bigger hands, and need bigger portions. I suggest 1 “fist” of carbs, and 2-3 “fingers” of protein in that 2 hour pre and post event window.
This might look like a bag of Chex mix and a few pieces of beef jerky, or a large apple and a few slices of cheese. It’s more about what the athlete feels best on.
Lastly, you are the parent. You also need to lead by example. If you know your child eats unhealthy, the first place you need to look is in a mirror. This may sound harsh but think about what you really care about. If you want your child to eat healthy, you must care about them. You should also care about yourself to make sure you are able to be around for them, and to be the best parent possible.
Leading by example can turn a whole family’s health trajectory around, so make it a family effort, support each other, and watch all of your health improve.
Looking for additional nutrition information? Check out my other blog posts.