Every single day we navigate countless food choices. Do I take a handful of candy from the dish at the office? Should I stop through the drive-through for a latte on the way to drop off the kids? Do I pack a lunch today, or will I make do with eating out?
I’ll come clean with you: I don’t nail these choices every time. And so when I think about teaching my kids about nutrition, it feels a bit like walking a tightrope. I want them to have the knowledge they need to make good choices without feeling guilt or shame if they sometimes choose the less healthy option. I want to find that sweet spot between giving them guidance and encouraging their own autonomy.
These concepts really became necessary for our family when our oldest son hit kindergarten. In addition to his limited intake of dairy, gluten, and refined sugar, he also avoids eggs due to a food sensitivity. Sticking with this diet is tough in a school where students are requested to share the responsibility of providing daily snacks. At first we tried sending him to school with all his own snacks. It wasn’t long before we were getting reports home that he was playing “food cop” at school, lecturing his classmates about their unhealthy snacks. We realized he was acting out because he was sad about eating different food than his classmates, and we went back to the drawing board.
We talked with him about how he was feeling, reiterating the symptoms he experiences when he eats eggs, in particular. We asked what he’d like to do. He wanted to try make his own choices at school, which we agreed to. Well, it wasn’t long before we noticed increased irritability and anger outbursts (his primary reaction to eggs) indicating he was going hog wild with all the various snacks at school. Again, we explained that we want food to make him feel healthy and strong, not frustrated and left out. In talking over various ways to address the problem, we continued to give him a say in the process and let him learn from his own experiences.
Now we’re at a place where we’re packing all his snacks again, by this time it’s by his request. He feels like it’s easier to have an option that’s safe for his belly than to miss out, or to eat the same treats and feel crummy. It’s not perfect—and it’s still a work in progress—but he’s learning what works for him as we go. In turn, I am realizing how important it is to keep the dialogue open and involve him in the process.
In my book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World, I outline a method that goes beyond just feeding our kids well and actually inspires them to make their own healthy choices. Foundational to my "Live it. Model it. Teach it." philosophy are the concepts of inspiring and letting go, versus pushing and convincing.
More Reading: Get Your Kid to Eat Like a Grown Up
Live it. When I am healthy and happy it benefits me, obviously, but my family, clients, and friends are impacted positively as well. I think many moms and dads often find it difficult to prioritize self-care, but the truth is that we deserve to be healthy and thriving just like our loved ones do. So, stop and ask yourself: Am I regularly neglecting my own self-care? What can I do better?
Model it. We have the opportunity to role model many aspects of a healthy lifestyle, and this of course includes feeding our bodies nourishing food. Make sure you’re not creating a “do as I say, not as I do” situation with food—when we as parents eat poorly at home, it doesn’t help our kids develop good judgment. I find that creating clear structure takes a lot of the guesswork out of it. If we make sure that all the food in our pantry is a good choice for everyone in our household, our sons are free to grow their independence in the kitchen and they have an abundance of good options to choose from.
Teach it. Take your role modeling a step further by adding in nuggets of information. Share your tidbits of information in a positive, proactive manner. We often talk about the food on our plate during dinner with the kids. We share how chlorophyll and antioxidants in our green and vibrant vegetables heal our bodies. More importantly, we draw connections between what we eat and how we feel. When one of our sons has a headache or is more gassy than normal, we try to figure out if their recent meals or snacks are the culprit. Taking the time to verbalize our health choices helps the concepts sink in for our sons.
More Reading: How to Make the Transition to Better Eating Habits
Eventually, it’s important to step back and let go, and to trust your kiddo’s unique journey. You can always regroup and reassess if you hit a roadblock, and those conversations only get easier once you’ve built a solid foundation around nutrition.
Message me for a free chapter with more details on my “Live it. Model it. Teach it.” philosophy from my book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World.
Let’s chat on social: How do you help your kids make healthy choices around food?
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.