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Eat by example to take fuss out of food time

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THEY were both hungry, cranky and teary-eyed. But they refused to eat the food available -- a healthy, tasty soup and a savoury watermelon salad.

Instead, one kid wanted cheese quesadillas -- hold the vegetables -- and the other wanted a piece of candy from the jar sitting on the kitchen counter.

This scenario -- a very common one in 21st-century Canadian homes -- is what I witnessed during a visit with a couple of parents I know. What they call dinner seemed more like a circus than a civilized meal.

The parents have accepted that their kids refuse to eat vegetables. As an alternative to salad, cheese pizza dipped in bottled ranch dressing is the norm. Chicken "nuggets" are also a favourite, but never whole, unprocessed meat.

Artificially-sweetened powdered drinks are what quenches their thirst instead of water.

Granted, the kids do enjoy some nutritious noshes: steel-cut oatmeal, as well as blended drinks made with plain yogurt and frozen berries.

But the more popular dinner fare in this house does not give the kids the best possible chance for a healthy body or a healthy relationship with food.

So, why are the kids so limited in their food preferences? And why are they so averse to consuming good old H2O?

Kids are picky eaters by nature, say many experts.

I believe there's a way to combat this: Teach by example.

As children, my brother and I ate dinner at the same time every day, seated at the dining table with our parents. My mother cooked us all kinds of foods, with various flavours and spices. As a result, at a very young age, we were familiar with all kinds of foods that kids supposedly aren't supposed to like.

We went to restaurants and ate what the grown-ups ate. (My brother, at age four, would go to a Greek restaurant with the family and ask for an appetizer sampler of olives and spinach pie).

Sure, there were foods we didn't like, and moments of pickiness. But my parents were never picky about their food; they didn't wrinkle their noses at salads, or insist that they couldn't stand mushrooms. And they didn't describe every flavourful food as "too spicy" or "too strong."

And for that, I am grateful. As an adult, I embrace food, always looking to try new flavours and textures. I crave certain greens, because I enjoy their crunch, taste and beauty.

Parents, for the most part, are the ones who determine kids' food preferences.

For example, my father would often eat half of a grapefruit for breakfast. As an eight-year-old, I wanted to do what he did. So, despite its tartness, I copied him and learned to love grapefruit.

With the school bell about to ring next week, a lot of parents have back-to-school lunches on their minds. After all, food is the fuel that keeps the brain and body going during long school days.

In upcoming Healthy Living columns, I'll talk with experts about how to foster healthy eating in kids.

For now, here are some tips to start with:

  • Use sugar, including honey, as a special occasion treat. There's no need to sweeten fruit or cereal with sugar or honey. Let your kids learn to enjoy the natural sweetness -- and tartness -- in foods. If a certain food, such as plain yogurt, is just too tart for your child to enjoy, use a light hand when sweetening.
  • Expose your child to a wide variety of tastes. Too many parents shelter their kids from flavours and assume they should only feed their kids bland foods. Don't be afraid to enhance your kids' food with herbs and spices. Sure, hot peppers are probably not appropriate for your toddler, but flavouring their pasta with rosemary, their tuna sandwich with dill, or their lentil soup with cumin will help them appreciate flavours.
  • Skip dips such as ketchup and ranch dressing. Covering everything in ketchup and creamy salad dressing will cover up the natural flavours in foods and teach your kids to rely on these high-sugar, high-fat items when eating.
  • Do not complain about foods you don't like. Your kids are listening, and will learn your food phobias.
  • Eat healthy foods. When your kids see you eating something, eventually they will become curious and will want to try it themselves.
  • Do not offer your kids juice or soft drinks at meals. Instead, make water the norm.
  • Eat meals around a set table at around the same time each day. This will teach them meals are an essential part of their daily routine.
  • Don't keep a cache of junk food in the house. Sugar and salt are addictive, and your kids will throw tantrums at meal time if they know they have options available to get their fix.

 

Have an interesting story idea you'd like Shamona to write about? Contact her at shamona.harnett@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2014 D1

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