Friday, February 13, 2015

How I Get My Kids to Eat Healthy

Last week in the comments section of my vaccines post, a dear blogger friend suggested I post a few simple, homemade substitutes for commonly-purchased foods. She specifically mentioned her son and his aversion to healthy foods....what parent can't relate to that? (That is a rhetorical question. Don't answer it, especially if you have one of those awesome kids who mows down on a head of cauliflower, k?)

So this friend (if you haven't checked out her blog yet, The Neuroscience Newbie, head on over there and check it out. She is hilarious and relatable and always teaching me something new about the weird mushy brain I house in my skull)....So this friend went on to explain she'd even gone to a nutritionist, to no avail. "What happens when he gets older??" she questioned herself. See? Told you she was relatable. 

I am constantly worried I'm not doing the right thing as a mom. I yell too much. I don't spend enough time with my kids. I don't let them eat enough McDonalds and when they get older they're going to eat it like everyday to make up for all the depravity they experienced as kids. True story, people. I really, truly, seriously worry that I don't feed my kids enough McDonalds. 

There's something wrong with this, yes? This mentality that if we don't expose them to crap when they're young that they're gonna go apeshit and eat every cheeto in sight when they grow up? How sad! And yet the perfect segue to the point of this blog post....

Teaching your kids how to eat healthy lasts a lifetime. It is, in my mind, more important than learning how to count money, how to ride a bike, how to make a bed, or how to ace a job interview. Learning how to eat is, quite literally, vital to human survival and health.

And let's squash those "but, but, but" worries right now. I can tell you from my extensive research that kids raised on healthy foods are not more likely to go rob a candy store when they leave the house. 

You wanna know what kids raised on healthy foods are more likely to do? Eat healthy as adults. 

So how do we get them there? How do we take a mac-n-cheese-only-please kid (my oldest for the first 4 years of her solid food life) and turn them into a green eating machine?

Well, to be honest, my kids aren't green eating machines. They are both very picky. They both like to complain about vegetables. They both will willingly gobble down McDonalds. Hell, my own mouth loves McDonalds. I keep reading about these people who grow their own food and then "can't stand the taste of McDonalds" and I want to meet them and steal their gardens and their tastebuds because they've got to have some awesome resistance to the chemicals McDonalds uses to keep me hooked. Two cheeseburger meal with a sprite. *insert Homer Simpson drooling noise*

I mean let's just call a spade a spade. Full disclosure: I am a recovering fast-food lover. My kids have eaten McDonalds. Despite all the horrific things I know about the way they process the meat, despite the fact I know it's like feeding poison to my kids, and despite the fact it takes 5 minutes to pack a lunch for 4, I will - I just know it -  someday eat fast food again. So will my kids. It's everywhere. They make it that way. They design the food that way. I almost feel like there is no escape. 

So maybe we should lower the bar. Instead of aiming for green eating machines, how about we take baby steps. That is my key to getting my kids to eat healthy. I've slowly, slowly weened my family off the factory crack by slowly, slowly altering what they are offered for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and during snacktime. 

This method is nowhere near easy, nor foolproof. My youngest daughter refuses to eat any stew-like dinners I make. This is unfortunate, you see, because I'm finding I love to make stew-like dinners. Crock pot that crap and BAM. Dinner. But she won't touch it, and I don't force her.

Didja hear me? I don't force my kid to eat something she doesn't want. I know some of you are gonna hate this, but biologically, when she's really hungry, she will eat. And because I also have a heart that breaks when my kids "go hungry," I soothe myself by acknowledging she had a kickass breakfast, lunch, and snack, and will not suffer if she skips out on dinner. It's like a 1-2 combo punch of science and common sense. Get good food in 'em earlier in the day, and dinner won't be a death match.

Breakfast is the easiest way to swap commercial foods for homemade/home-grown healthy foods. Healthy breakfasts foods are naturally sweet and high in kids love sweets and carbohydrates. Let's break down what I swapped.

Before: Bagels, muffins, sugary cereals, and store-bought granola bars
After: Organic grain cereal, one piece of fruit, and le piece de rĂ©sistance, my homemade granola bars. (Hoping to add hard-boiled eggs once we get our flock.)

I think my favorite swap to date is the store-bought granola bars for my homemade granola bars. My homemade ones taste like oat heaven and can double as granola cereal. My kids devour them. Seriously. They are awesome. They take an hour out of my weekend every two weeks. I use oats, flour, baking soda, butter, honey, dried cranberries, dried cherries, and raisins. 

Lunch is a little trickier. I really like easy (read = commercialized)....but it was getting insanely processed. I had to make some serious changes.

Before: Peanut butter and jelly, fruit snacks, chips, goldfish crackers, easy mac
After: Wallace Farms protein, spinach, yogurt, almonds, block cheese, organic animal crackers with ingredients I can read

Basically, I became a french person. I substituted the crackers and chips with almonds and yogurt. It doesn't taste the same, obviously. But I introduced the almonds as a snack one day, and when both kids ate them up, I decided having a few on their lunch plate would get them the afternoon protein we all need in our lives. I also do my own version of a deconstructed sammich for my little one. She gets all the awesomeness of a deli sammich minus the bread. We buy bread that needs to be frozen and toasting bread every afternoon makes me want to gouge my eyes out. She gets a ton of grains at breakfast, so we're cool. My school-aged angel does get bread with her lunch...but she packs her own lunch. More on that later. Swapping crap bread (read =  anything that can sit for more than 4-6 days without getting moldy) for pure bread (no preservatives - flour, yeast, baking soda, all stuff you can read) is another really easy way to purify your meals. 

The animal crackers act as a "treat" for the wee one when she eats all her food. Some people say not to reward with dessert-like foods. I say screw that noise. I pick the treat and I make it reasonably healthy. Works like a charm! If you don't have crap in the house, you won't eat it. Your kids won't eat it. Your animals won't eat it. Don't buy no crap won't be no crap.

Snacks are normally some mini-form of breakfast. Snacks are also incredibly easy to swap. Even organic food comes pre-packaged these days. My kids love fruit, especially bananas with peanut butter or apples and honey. I'm not kidding, they love sugar. 

Before: Ritz crackers, chips, and fruit snacks
After: dry cereal, granola, popcorn, hummus and carrots, or their favorite, dried berries.

Dinnertime is my experimentation time. 

Before: Boxed "mix me and cook me" meals, hot dogs with Pillsbury rolls wrapped around them, freezer bag-to-skillet meals, boxed mac n' cheese
After: Rice, meat, and veggie skillets, cornbread skillets, pasta with veggie sauce, baked pesto pasta, handmade burgers

To make dinner healthier I just moved away from processed. "No processed food hitting our plates" was my goal. We do still eat frozen pizza. Homemade is way, way better, but sometimes it's just way easier to pop a 'za in the oven and call it a day. I've done about 14 varieties of macaroni and cheese. It tastes awesome, but takes forever. Pasta with veggies in the sauce is pretty easy and kids will often eat anything sauce-coated without question. Garlic, onions, and zucchini are all really good for you.

Drinks are pretty self-explanatory around here. No real swaps were needed for this one because I was a pediatric dental assistant for years and, therefore, was scared straight out of the juice aisle. I never buy it. My kids drink water. They don't drink milk. They don't drink Gatorade. They drink water. I'm tellin ya, I like easy. Nothing is easier (or more effective) than water. When they want something special we have kid tea. 

A few final tips on how I get my kids to eat healthy:

1. Let the kids help prepare their food. My oldest daughter is so excited about making oatmeal for breakfast.....because she gets to make it. She takes old-fashioned oats, pours in milk, sprinkles raisins, and eats it with this huge smile on her face. It's just oatmeal. Making the food makes her want to eat every last bite. 

2. Let them plant and grow and nurture their food. It's winter so this ain't happening right now, but when you let little hands plant seeds, water, weed, and harvest veggies and herbs, they are connected and invested in their food. We're fighting against the misled magic of the fruit loop toucan, people. You gotta make food fun, inspiring, and a source of pride. Just give 'em a seed and some encouragement. 

3. Explain why crap food is crap food. My oldest kid loves the human body. I explain the processes behind digestion. I explain what these food companies put in their crap food. I explain why it harms us. I explain how important it is to know your food source. These are real topics and my kids still think I'm God. Choose to talk about food. It's so, so important. 

4. Lead by example. My kids don't get fast food unless I do. It's sad and breaks my heart and makes me feel so, so guilty....but it's true. I can't tell them to eat healthy and then shove burgers in my mouth all night. 

5. Enlist the help of those who love you and your kids. I needed my in-laws to be on-board with our healthy decisions. My kids love Grammie and Grampie and look up to them...what kind of message are they sending if they tell my kids it's actually ok to eat all the foods mommy and daddy say are dangerous and harmful? I am blessed with good in-laws and aside from a few "grandparental treats" every now and then (which we also do), they completely back us up. **Your kid's health should always come first. If you have a troublesome caregiver who doesn't respect your healthy lifestyle, seriously consider having those hard conversations and making decisions that are in the best interest of your kiddo. Our kids need us to be brave. 

Here are a few resources for those struggling with healthy eating and picky kiddos. It pays to keep up the effort. I'd even venture to say it's your job to keep trying! Don't give up. 

...and one of my favorite blog posts regarding the "depriving them of sweets makes them binge later" debate:

If you have other tips and tricks to add, please let me know in the comments down below. Thanks goes out to my dear friend Iva for suggesting this post, and as always, to you for reading :)


  1. Thank you for addressing this head on in a post :) And for the shout-out, always love shout-outs <3 Man it's hard no joke- I definitely try to talk to him about food and how it's bad for you, I also try to treat him to fast food in moderation - McD's I'm guilty of every few months I usually do Wendy's if I'm going to indulge wtih him but most of the time pizza. He really likes those jelly fruit cups and I'm not sure how but you just inspired me to figure out how to make this at home for the kid just gotta find nice cute packages to put them in. With kids, it's all about presentation. It's such a struggle man and you worry all the time.. I worry ALL the time, every second.. But that's being a parent right??? THis was VERY helpful you were way more helpful than the fucking nutritionist I paid a ton for at Hopkins.. It was a pathetic 5 minute consultation.. I swear, what a waste! Thanks for taking the time to write this love and have a kick ass weekend Jennifer! -Iva

    1. Girl anytime!! Love having you as my blogger buddy :) You are so right about the presentation - my kids will eat anything that is fed out of the ordinary (like in the car! Or the living room even! I can get my kid to eat crap just by whipping it out in the living room!) or looks pretty. So I found a couple cool links to homemade fruit cups - maybe he'll like one of them!

      And you have no idea how thrilled I am to hear I was able to help more than the nutritionist....HAHA! That seriously made my weekend! Thanks again Iva :) I hope you have an awesome, incredible weekend!! xox

  2. I am so motivated by this - and thinking I'm a really bad mom. I need to drop the snacks and the juice huh? Thanks for sharing your methods, I need to step up my game!

    1. I'm glad you're motivated!! AND NOOOOOO you are not a really bad mom! You are a wonderful mother. If you're a bad mom, I'm a bad mom....and I know that is just not true! Juice is terrible for teeth and after holding down kids so they can get their cavities drilled and filled, I banned it for life. Snacks are good, though! Just make it something with some ooomph to it nutritionally. Start small! :)