One question I get asked quite a bit, especially around the holidays, is how to ensure that kids eat healthy around the holidays. There’s more sugar around at this time of the year, and it’s easier for children to develop poor habits that continue with them throughout the year.
Recent research shows that childhood obesity is on the rise, and with it come diseases that used to be left to the elderly. Children are experiencing heart disease, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, strokes, and depression like never before, and I truly think the standard American diet has almost everything to do with it.
This really is an urgent matter. Children have to be taught how to eat and enjoy the foods that nourish their bodies, give them energy (but not energy spikes, the way sugar does), and make them feel good, vibrant and healthy.
I know its tough to get kids to eat green leafy vegetables, to create one meal for the entire family, to feed them with smoothies, homemade almond milk or eat raw garlic. Believe me, I know it’s hard, it is a struggle for all of us. Success comes with consistency, determination and a full commitment to the process. When trying to transition your kids to a healthier lifestyle and diet, you must understand that rejection and struggle will be a part of the process. No one changes overnight.
I’ve prepared a list with steps to help kids eat healthier around the holidays, and hopefully keeping these good habits throughout the year as well.
Step#1: Teach By Example
If you really enjoy a meal, snack, or smoothie, verbalize it in front of your kids. Offer them a sip or a bite of whatever it is you’re having. Talk about how good it makes you feel and how happy and energetic you are. Mention when you’ve just chased them around the yard or run with them as they biked around the neighbourhood, “Wow, I sure am glad I had that healthy lunch! It gave me the energy I needed to do that!”
When you set the example and demonstrate and discuss all the benefits of the new lifestyle, you won’t have to force it.
Step #2: Don’t Force It Right Away!
There may come a time when you have to cut out the unhealthy grocery store purchases completely (more on that in a minute), but when you’re first starting out, try gradual changes that kids may not notice, like having more vegetarian (and properly combined) meals, replacing peanut butter with almond butter, eating healthier grains instead of white rice, and having healthy smoothies you make at home instead of the ones smoothie shops sell that are loaded with sugar and dairy.
If you try to force the new lifestyle on your kids too quickly, you may have a rebellion on your hands that could have been avoided. This is especially true considering that most “junk food” options now have healthier counterparts that can be found at most health food stores. There’s no reason to go cold turkey if your children are used to certain snacks, use “healthy” versions of their favourite foods as a way to transition.
Step #3: Don’t Keep Junk in the House
If they’re not used to healthy foods all the time, I would expect the kids (and maybe even your spouse) to grumble a bit the first time or two that you come home from the grocery store without any junk food to snack on. Keep healthy meal and snack options on hand and readily available (like carrot sticks for hummus or celery sticks and dip) and they’ll eventually come around. If healthy, whole foods are the only things available and they’re really hungry, they’ll eat it and even learn to appreciate the more subtle flavours over time.
If you’re responsible for feeding small children their meals and snacks and they’re prone to food-related meltdowns (“NO! I want cookies!”), make yourself a short list of properly combined favourites you can offer them, keep it in the kitchen, and always make sure you have the ingredients on hand. It’ll be a lifesaver when you’re frazzled, exhausted, and handing over a simple apple just won’t cut it. There’s always the possibility that you’ll have to wait out the tantrum before an agreement can be reached anyway, but at least you’ll have nutritious options to share once everyone’s recovered.
One study at Oxford found that there is a significant correlation between children’s and parent’s eating habits, right down to little things like snack intake. (1) So everything you do in front of your children absolutely matters!
Step #4: Give Meals and Snacks Fun Names
You’ve probably heard of calling broccoli trees so a child can pretend he’s a giant and gobble them up. You might just need a fun name to get a kid to try something he or she wouldn’t have otherwise wanted to taste.
Sometimes all it takes is a single bite of a food for a kid to think, “Hey, this really isn’t as bad as I thought it’d be,” and an interesting name will be the nudge it takes to get that first bite in. The more recipes children try—and love—the easier it will be to get them into the healthier lifestyle you wish to establish at home.
Step #5: Sneak the Veggies into Their Juice
Kids love their juices. Though drinking fruit juice throughout the day isn’t the best idea, you can take advantage of that juice habit as they transition into drinking more water throughout the day. Make their juices fresh instead of buying them pre-bottled, and sneak in some great nutrients. For example, juice kale, spinach, romaine, etc, with the apples for apple juice.
When it’s time to switch to more water, you can infuse it with enticing flavours like strawberry, cucumber, etc, by adding cut up fruit to the pitcher of water and storing it in the fridge overnight.
Step #6: Start as Early as Possible (Even During Pregnancy!)
If you’re pregnant, planning to get pregnant soon, or breastfeeding, you can do a lot to influence the foods your children will naturally gravitate toward later in life. In fact, research now shows that the diet you eat right BEFORE getting pregnant can literally alter your baby’s genes! 
What’s more, babies tend to develop a taste for the types of foods their mothers eat while they’re in the womb or breastfeeding, so if you’re already living a healthier lifestyle during these points of your life, the work is already done for you. There won’t be any huge transition period for your children as they grow older.
Sure, your kids may have not-so-healthy treats at friends’ houses and wonder why you can’t or won’t buy the same things their parents do, but ultimately, you’ll get to avoid the uphill battles that could come with a lifestyle overhaul for older kids (though, don’t worry, it’s not impossible with them, either!).
Step #7: Make the Food Cute!
Yes, it does take extra time sometimes, but presentation is everything, especially when you’re a kid. When you sit down at a restaurant and the server brings out your food, think about how a dish that’s obviously been arranged to look especially pretty makes you feel. You’re a little bit more excited to dig in, right?
Don’t worry about making the presentation perfect, though. It can be as simple as a cute straw in their morning green juice. Arrange the food on the plate so that it looks like a face, flower, or favorite animal (it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, don’t worry!), or stand broccoli up in hummus to make a forest.
Step #8: Make Their Favourites, but Healthier!
Kids love all the foods that aren’t so good for us—burgers, pizza, pasta, chips, and so on. Don’t be afraid to “trick” them into eating the healthier versions of their favourites. It sounds devious, but using quinoa pasta or running zucchini through a spiralizer to make pasta and then topping it off with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and any other veggies you can toss into your homemade sauce can be a compromise that works for everyone.
Depending on the age of your kids, there may be some raised eyebrows when the pasta is green or the texture is a little bit different from normal, but it’s worth a try! Part of the fun for kids is slurping up the noodles, and they’re still able to do that with these.
Step #9: Talk to Them About the Benefits
Does your child love a certain character on television or in a book? What are the qualities he or she loves about that person? Find a way to link what you’re eating to that character to make the food more appealing. For example, if your son or daughter admires Superman’s strength, point out that eating kale and getting regular play time (exercise!) will make them stronger. You may have to let them down gently when they ask if they’ll be able to leap over tall buildings or lift cars, though!
I’ve found one reason why many don’t encourage their children or family to eat healthier is fear. They are afraid they will react negatively, or afraid they’ll be criticized, or that thing won’t go well. But as you get more powerful and your communication strengthens, you’ll find that the fear goes away and it’s easier to express the things you know to be right and true.
Step #10: Have Some Backups Ready!
Some foods are acquired tastes and kids may really not enjoy them at first. Brussels sprouts come to mind. If you want to make them for your family, go ahead, and make sure your kids try a bite each time you make them. Just one bite, and then they can move on to something else. Have something they do like (that isn’t a lot of extra effort for you to make), like raw carrots, as a back-up option.
The point here is that you definitely want to have some backup healthy items ready just in case they aren’t initially crazy about the new healthy foods you prepared. This way, you can ensure they eat well but are eased into the transition and there is no push back.
Have a Healthy Home This Holiday Season!
Over time, your kids may acquire a taste for more of the healthier foods. When there’s not a lot of stress or negativity around those foods, they’re more likely to be open to them later.
Nutritionally, they’ll still be fine because you’ll have healthy alternatives on hand (and you may be sneaking nutrition in elsewhere, too, like the juices). This should just be a transition phase as they learn to like new, different foods.
Just as you affect the health and energy inside your home, you are also affected by the foods and environment. By following these steps and empowering your children and significant other to eat healthier, you’ll be raising the energy and overall quality of life for your family and reap many benefits along the way.
Until next time! Wishing you and yours the very best.