Adopting healthier eating habits can be hard. But it can be even harder when you face resistance from your family. Kids (and sometimes even spouses) can be picky and quick to turn their noses up to new foods.
Even though it’s difficult, garnering the support of your family can make eating healthy much easier and dare we say a lot of fun! So we’ve turned to Naturopathic Doctor and family-based practitioner, Bronwyn Hill to get some professional advice on how to get the whole family on board with healthier eating habits.
That Clean Life: What do you feel are some of the biggest barriers that parents face when trying to get their family to eat healthy?
Dr. Bronwyn Hill: The first is time and energy. It requires resourcefulness and commitment from both parents to help the whole family eat well. After a long day of family life, it is not surprising that the last thing folks want to do is cook - especially for picky eaters. Pleasing everyone at the dinner table is of course another challenge.
The second barrier is confusion about what really comprises a "healthy and nutritionally balanced meal". With all kinds of information and opinions constantly coming at us through the media and different sources, choosing what to eat can be overwhelming.
How do you recommend families overcome these barriers?
Meal planning is essential. Finding a chunk of time each week to put your schedule together, do the bulk of your grocery shopping, and get a head start on meal prep is key. It also saves you time throughout the week. Plan to make enough so that you have leftovers and invest in some glass containers for storage! A slow cooker can also be a great investment to overcome time restrictions.
To keep everyone healthy and happy, start with a healthy re-jig of your family’s favourite recipes/meals. It could be as simple as cooking more veggies into tomato sauce, swapping sweet potatoes for white, trying a different pancake recipe that uses whole oats instead of white flour. Pick one meal of the day as a start, like breakfast. Make small changes and see where it takes you.
For those who might not be convinced this is worth the effort, what are the benefits of getting your whole family on the healthy-eating train?
Eating healthy as a family unit is how we help raise young people to become conscious eaters and consumers. Eating a diet that emphasizes whole foods (not-processed) provides everyone with the nutritional building blocks they need for optimal health. What you might notice first is that eating nourishing food has an impact on everyone’s mood, energy and immunity. The immediate effects are certainly there, and the preventative health benefits are as well.
Healthy eating is not just about the actual food, but how and where you eat. Eating together as a family, consistently - is probably the most beneficial thing you can do for everyone’s well-being. It helps keep everyone connected, supported and engaged in family life. Studies have demonstrated that children who eat with their parents make better food choices, have better health outcomes, and improved academic performance. Setting priorities about eating family meals is truly a powerful thing!
Okay, so now that we are totally convinced, what advice would you give to parents who would like to shift their family to healthy eating habits but don’t know where to start?
To start, keep it simple by making some healthy “tweaks” to familiar meals to keep everyone happy. Make a goal to eat as a family, without distractions, at least 2-3 times per week. No TV/phones/i-pads, just eat - together!
Model the behaviour you want to see! If parents are not eating well, it is not fair to expect that their children will suddenly jump on board. Kids are much more likely to eat their fruits and veggies if they see mom and dad eat them too.
Remind yourself that healthy eating is a behavioural change, and this does not happen overnight. Take it easy on yourself and don’t give up if something does not work the first time. Instead of feeling like you need to overhaul every bite of the day - just start with snacks and perhaps one meal of the day. Try some alternatives, and let your progress continue to build.
We all know eating more veggies is often a challenge, so aim to have two different coloured veggies on your plate at least once per day - ideally one serving would be green.
We often hear from our members, “I have to cook two different meals, a healthy one for myself and then another that my kids will eat” Do you have any advice for how to overcome this?
Try the “Fridge Shelf Rule”. Designate one shelf or area in the fridge for your picky eater, stock it with a variety of healthy options from different food groups. If they are turning down the meal you have prepared, you will not cook another, but they are allowed to take their choice of foods from the shelf. It can take some persistence to see this kind of objection through so don’t give up!
Can you suggest any ways that parents can get their kids more involved in the kitchen and healthy eating process?
Grow some food! In your yard, on the window-ledge in containers - whatever works. Kids have so much fun with this, and it can provide a real sense of accomplishment for them to harvest foods they grew themselves.
Allow every family member to have some say in meal choices and menu planning. Offer a few concrete options, and let the kids decide what’s for dinner and help with the prep. Having a few cookbooks at home can help with options and inspiration.
Any advice on how to encourage kids to try new foods?
Don’t make it a big deal up front - just put it in front of them without comment and let them explore/figure it out. Anticipation of the change or just saying it’s “different” can make kids mentally decide they won’t like it before they even see it or try it. Don’t give up if they don’t like it the first time. Emphasize they don’t have to like it, they just have to try 2-3 bites.
Present new foods in a visually fun way, offer some assembly component, or healthy dips as a pairing. If a food gets turned down the first time, try delivering it differently the next time, and you might just find there is no objection. Regularity and a consistent mealtime schedule helps keep everyone happy and generally more agreeable.
Are there any big “no-no’s” when it comes to trying to get your kids to try new foods?
I generally do not recommend using foods as rewards, I think it can be a slippery slope and a tough pattern to bust out of. Rewards for trying something new should be family time, stickers, something more constructive. Junk food can still be a treat every now-and-then, but not provided in response to certain behaviours.
Ask your child about why they did not like something new. Was it taste, texture, how it made them feel? Some food rejections can be due to an underlying intolerance or sensitivity, so talk to your child about the objection to get a better understanding.
What are your own go-to healthy meals that your whole family loves?
I have three fail-proof suggestions:
- Taco Night: An easy way to give lots of choice and some assembly is required which is fun. Most importantly, it allows you to incorporate nutritional variety like different coloured veggies, meat and vegetarian proteins, etc.
- Homemade Pizza: Another really fun meal that everyone always loves - once again because of the choice, variety and the appeal of eating pizza!
- Roast Chicken Dinner: A real staple, especially in colder weather. Learning to roast a chicken is arguably one of the most important things I ever learned!
Bronwyn Hill is a licensed, board-certified Naturopathic Doctor currently practicing in Toronto. She maintains a family-based practice and works with people of all ages, with a variety of concerns. Her areas of experience and interest include pregnancy, labour-preparation, postpartum care, pediatric care, menopause support, insomnia, weight management, digestive concerns and mental health. Learn more about Bronwyn here.