All the Right Foods

Little chief-cook tasting the carrot isolated on white

One of my favorite teachers once said “Never fight a battle with a child that you cannot win.” Excellent, timeless advice.

Luckily, children are young and inexperienced. We adults are old and treacherous–we can outsmart them.

This is particularly good advice when it comes to nourishing a child. The grown ups need to win food battles, because the losing side is populated with joint pain, back pain, heart disease, stroke and death. We have to set up this battle so that we cannot lose, because otherwise our child will suffer.

There are two keys to making this work.

The first is that children do not cry for what they don’t know exists. A three year old who doesn’t know about chicken nuggets and French fries does not beg for them. If it’s not too late, start on day one and keep only healthy food in the house, in the proportions you want them to consume. Eat at home. Then let them have it. Everything in the house is good for them, so you never have any arguments over what your urchins can or cannot eat. If they munch on healthy snacks throughout the day, like whole grain crackers with cheese or pieces of fruit or veggies, it really doesn’t matter if they eat formal meals.  There is no need to argue over what they need to eat before they leave the table.

If it is too late and they already have some bad habits, explain to them that you’re turning over a new leaf, eating healthier, and throwing out all the junk. Then do it, and put in earplugs. It gets better in about two weeks if you are consistent and don’t give in.

The second key is that “never” is a lot easier for a child to deal with than “sometimes.” “Never” is a shake of the head, a smile, and a change of subject. “Sometimes” is endless daily arguments over what they want today because sometimes they get it, sometimes you buy it, sometimes it’s O.K. It’s easier for the child as well: children are less stressed and develop healthier habits when they can eat when they’re hungry, eat whatever is available, and stop eating when they’re not hungry.

So what edibles do you bring into the house? Start with whole foods: things that look like they grew out of the ground or lived on it. Shop mostly around the outside of the grocery store where they keep the produce, meats, and dairy. Avoid the aisles unless there is something specific on them that you need. Don’t buy anything with ingredients that you can’t pronounce without a chemistry degree, and don’t buy sodas.

Make a meal plan for the week, taking into account what is in season, what you like to eat, and what your week is going to be like. Make meals ahead that you can reheat or reinvent later in the week when you have a crazy busy night. Throw together an extra pan of lasagna, bake a larger chicken than you need so you can make quick quesadillas, or save some leftovers for a shepherd’s pie. Plan ahead so you won’t be tempted by the drive through.

About 2/3 of everything children eat should be fruits, veggies and whole or enriched grains. This leaves only about 1/3 for proteins (meat, eggs, cheese, beans, and nuts) and starches (potatoes, bread, corn). That translates to a maximum of about 6 ounces per day of protein containing foods for a medium sized child, and 6 ounces of starch. Visually this is a portion about the size of a deck of cards, much less than the average child eats. This leaves lots of room in their stomachs for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Children don’t overeat on a diet that is mostly fruits and veggies, which means you don’t have to chase them around trying to limit how much they eat so that they won’t get chubby. Feel free to let them have seconds, thirds and fourths on the broccoli and carrots, but sorry kid, that’s all the meat and potatoes we made.

Arrange the battlefield ahead of time in such a way that you have no chance of losing–you don’t even actually need to fight–so that your child will grow up healthy, nourished and strong, with good lifelong habits. Do this consistently and everyone’s lives will be less stressful. Your children will know that food is nourishment of the body, not an emotional crutch for the soul.

Below is a chart that should give you an idea of what the goals are for your child’s diet, based on their sex, age, and activity level:

diet table2

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