Simple starting points to clean up your kid’s eating habits

Won’t hurt yours, either!

When I made the ice cream restriction, it wasn’t my whole diet I was worried about. No major health issues—that happened later. No guilt. I just realized that eating ice cream in large servings multiple times on most days of the week year round was not a good habit and I needed to change it.

That one step led to one more step (stop keeping chips in the house) which led to one more… By about 10 years later, I was mostly where I am now: vegetarian, few processed foods, very few sweets, a list of ingredients I avoid (high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), most soy, natural flavors, artificial flavors, dyes, and on and on).

If, at the beginning of my journey, you had told me to change ALL of the things I’ve changed in the intervening time (remember: 10 years!), there is no way I would have agreed to it. Even if I did agree to it, it wouldn’t have all stuck. It was too much, and my mindset wasn’t an overhaul, it was “something has to change.”

I recommend you make changes to your kid’s diet (and your diet) the same way: one small, sustainable change at a time. In a society of immediate gratification, this is a hard sell, but for most people, most habits, most of the time, it is the path of least resistance that most likely leads to success.

In other words, fewer meltdowns, tantrums, or eye rolls, depending on your child’s age when you start to subtly shift their eating habits. If your child is young enough (or not born yet!), it will be even easier—healthy eating habits will just be “normal.”

Here are seven different first steps. (They are not sequential.) Choose the one that resonates with you and run with it!*

1- Choose one unhealthy food and reduce or eliminate it. As you already know, for me, this was ice cream not more than once per day. Start wherever works for you.

2- Put less healthy foods out of easy reach. Cookie jars and candy dishes keep junk food within sight and reach at all times. Remove them from both your line of sight and easy reach to help you consume less. Even better if you can reduce them until they’re out of the house.

3- Have more produce on hand. You can’t eat it if it’s not there. Maybe add one serving of veggies to each day. Or include a piece of fruit with your breakfast. Or have a green smoothie for breakfast or afternoon snack. Make it a game and see how many colors of the rainbow you can eat each day (or each week). In fruits and veggies, not dyed stuff!

4- Prepare one meal per week from scratch. The typical advice is to eat out less. While that is good advice and, depending on where you are, might be a good starting point, it overlooks that eating in is often composed of pre-made foods that aren’t healthy at all. (Note: not all pre-made foods are unhealthy, but you have to do some solid searching to find healthy ones…and they tend not to be cheap.) Cooking a meal starting with ingredients instead of a mix, a box, or a bag can help your palate begin to recognize the significant difference in taste and texture between “real” food and pre-made convenience food. (Using a slow cooker or prepping and eating together with a friend can make this step easier.)

5- Eliminate reward foods. We reward ourselves and our kids with food so often that most of us don’t even notice that we’re doing it. Making food the primary reward connects food with emotion and leads to “I deserve sweet food” every time you’ve done something well. Use something else as a reward instead. For kids, it might be a small toy. Or just spending time with them doing what they want to do. (Young kids want nothing more than to be together with their safe people.) Stick a coin or a dollar in a reward jar. Do something you like to do. Find another way to pat yourself on the back the majority of the time.

6- Add flavors yourself. Buy plain yogurt and add fruit and sweetener (if necessary). Pop plain popcorn and add your own condiments. If kids have never had the “dressed up” versions of these things, they’ll often eat them plain without complaint. Once they’ve had sweetened colored yogurt from a tube, it’s hard to work back to plain.

7- Eliminate or reduce sugary drinks. In addition to soda, this includes fruit juice, which has all of the sugar but none of the fiber found in the whole fruit. Smoothies not made at home, slushies, milkshakes, coffee/tea drinks that are anything more than beans/leaves and water would also be on this list.

Just pick one and go with it. When you have a handle on that one, when you feel like it is a habit and not something that you still need to think about or work on, then go on to the next one.

None of these is one-size-fits-all. Some will work for you and your family. Others won’t. Take what works. Leave what doesn’t.

Also, if your kid is very young or still theoretical—they won’t have a diet of only mac and cheese and chicken nuggets if you never feed them mac and cheese or chicken nuggets…

Your health is in your hands. Your child’s health is in your hands. Every step counts!

*My disclaimer on this post is simply that I understand there are kids with texture issues and other variables that make feeding much more complicated than typical. I don’t have experience—directly or indirectly—with those types of struggles, so I can’t speak to which of the above, if any, work for that population. As with pretty much anything, it all depends on your kid…

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