Last week this comment was left on OrganicMania: “We have a 4 year old who has been raised without any [ok, without much] junky food. Now as we enter the mainstream I am worried about how to maintain our standards. Would like to start a dialog about this.”
I can really empathize with MA, who left the comment. Any parent can relate, especially those of use who have had to answer questions like, “How come Jack gets to drink soda at dinner and I don’t?” or “Why can’t I have Cap’n Crunch for breakfast like at Dylan’s house?”
It’s relatively easy to control a child’s nutrition when they’re still at home, but I’ve found that once they leave the nest, whether it’s for a childcare setting, preschool, kindergarten, or even for neighborhood playdates, all bets are off. The point is you really can’t control what goes into their little mouths – you can only guide and encourage. Still, some parents may find some of the following ten tips useful while struggling to raise healthy eaters in our supersized, fast food, hydrogenated oil culture.
1. Talk to your children at a very early age (2 is ideal) about healthy food choices. Outings to the grocery store are a great way to start the conversation. Make it fun. Teach them about what’s in food – everything from chemicals, preservatives, and sugar in processed foods to vitamins and minerals in produce.
2. Reinforce these discussions with appropriate media choices. There is a cute Barney song on the “Lets go to the Farm” DVD that talks about healthy food choices. You can easily find other examples in plenty of books and PBS fare.
3. At about age 3, you can explain how “kid marketing” works. Make it a game. My son walks through the grocery store cereal aisle pointing out all the “kid marketing.” Again, make it fun and exaggerate – kids love that. Say, “Can you believe people eat SUGAR for BREAKFAST?” “Can you believe some grown-ups think they can trick kids into actually eating this JUNK? Yuck!!”
4. Associate with like-minded parents. Bring up the food issue pro-actively and try to set standards for playdate snacks. Be specific. One person’s “healthy” does not always equal another person’s idea of “healthy.”
5. Choose preschools and day care providers carefully. Talk about snack policies in detail. Even if you have a nanny come to your home, you may need to have this conversation. I know one parent who bought all organic foods only to find that they weren’t being eaten because her nanny was bringing white bread, gummy bear snacks, and crackers with hydrogenated oils for her children to eat as “special treats.”
6. The public schools are a mess, for the most part. Lobby for better food in the public schools. Talk to your school board and your local elected officials.
7. Don’t be a zealot. If you put all junk food off limit all the time, guess what your kids will crave? The forbidden fruit! There are certain times when some crappy food is just what the doctor ordered … cotton candy at the fair, Halloween candy, French Fries on the boardwalk, or a stop at McDonald’s as a break from a long car trip (only when the better alternatives described in this post are not available).
8. Those exceptions aside, don’t make a habit of rewarding your kids with crappy food.
9. Don’t leave the house without some healthy snacks. It never fails…your child will get hungry when there is nothing around but a vending machine! And bring more than you think you’ll need…so that you can be the parent with the “treats.” For the longest time, I supplied the neighborhood kids with “Just Peas,” which everyone thought was great until they discovered Gummy Bear snacks.
10. Look at close replacements to the “cool” foods that the other kids are eating. Some may snicker at the new organic processed foods, but I’d rather have my child eating preservative-free organic chips than the traditional chemical, GMO, and preservative-laden bags of crap.
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