When kids are eating with other kids at the same table, it can turn out being either very beneficial or a bit harmful. When I’m eating at home or at a restaurant with my kids, I have total control of what they are eating, but when they are at school I am not in command.
One of my twins, for example, has been having a rebellious phase in the last few days, and he has been rejecting, and even spitting, some of the food he used to like, something that he has never done before. Maybe he saw another kid doing it at school, or maybe it is that he already knows that there are choices that can be made regarding food, and he is choosing to eat only what he wants. These two situations lead to the same spot: social environment shape in great manner the eating patterns of our kids. Therefore, our role as parents is crucial, and there is no chance for excuses when the subject is the health of our children.
My twins are over 2 years old, and as I said before, they are starting to realize that they can make choices about what to eat. It is well documented that these choices are mostly controlled and pre-established by parents, and although there are tons of food ads and distracting temptations in the efforts towards being healthy, the strength and discipline from parents are the most important factors when determining kids’ choices and attitude towards food. Children today are fighting against increasing overweight/obesity rates (41 million worldwide aged 0 to 5 years according to WHO), as well as a surge in chronic diseases that were previously mostly seen in adults, such as type 2 diabetes.
The interaction between kids during the meal time, as well as eating in other environments different from home, should not jeopardize the healthy habits our kids. However, this requires an “at home” nutrition education program that will hopefully be reinforced at school. According to studies, between 3-5 years of age, children are becoming aware of their body and their health, and are developing skills to interact with the world. Therefore, teaching them about healthy eating from as early as when they are born is important to establish healthy behaviors for the future. I have taken my kids to do groceries at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods since they were very little, and nowadays I make it a point to take them during ‘snack time’ so that they can grab a fruit or a veggie while we go around shopping… and learn about the types of foods that are available in the market.
Because I have fully embraced my kids’ nutrition since they were born, I have not had problems with making them eat what I want. They are familiar with the food I have intended for them to eat, and I do not leave it to chance. Kids don’t only learn from what we say... in fact they mostly learn from what we do… so keeping a healthy environment at home, putting into action what we are teaching them, makes it more natural for them to maintain and follow good practices at school, restaurants or other houses. So, it will not really matter if in some situations they are surrounded with kids that do not have healthy habits, because they have been growing up in a “green” eating environment.
I am also getting ready for the next few years, where they will want to take more control of what they eat. Here’s what I have been doing:
- I have chosen to put my kids into a school that offers organic and healthy preparations.
- When we go to a restaurant, I order first what I think they would like the least (although they usually still like it), such as a green salad and bowl of veggies. I then order the main dishes. This does not let them choose between the salad and the main dish, and they end up eating both.
- I pack snacks that I know they like and take them wherever we go: they love olives, seed´s crackers, Greek yogurt, fermented cheeses, carrot and celeries, just to mention a few.
- I combine as much colors as I can in their plates to make food fun and attractive.
- I try new foods at least 15 times until they like them. Kids might not like something one day, but the next day they might love it! We need to be patient and disciplined to pursue our goals of raising healthy kids.
- I keep track of what my kids are eating as much as I can. I encourage parents to embrace their children’s meals as much as their own: persist and resist and do not give up. Eat with them as much as you can, and make food a daily topic.