My five-year-old son begins each day by drinking a glass of fresh, green juice made from a variety of organic vegetables and fruit. We usually combine cucumbers, romaine lettuce and celery with an apple to make it more palatable for his taste buds.
Does this sound too good to be true? I realize most parents may think this routine would be next to impossible to accomplish with their own kids, and it might be if you do not follow some key steps first. Before you attempt to coax your kids into drinking some green juice, I urge you to read my seven tips for helping your kids to eat healthier foods. When you follow them, you will be surprised and pleased with the results.
1. Replace Their Food with Healthy Substitutes
Begin your child’s nutrition reform by subtly replacing some of their favorite foods with healthier but similar substitutes. If you announce the change with bells and whistles, chances are good that you kids will be wary of trying the new foods. If you don’t mention it, they may not take much note of the difference. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Ice cream – Serve non-dairy organic coconut ice cream instead of the mucous-forming dairy versions. My family enjoys Luna & Larry’s Organic Coconut Bliss Bars, which are creamy and delicious without dairy, soy or added sugar.
- Bread – Instead of peanut butter and jelly on white bread, which is high in sugar and fat and low in nutrition, serve your child nutritious and tasty almond butter and organic fruit spread on toasted Ezekiel bread.
- Pasta – After switching to brown rice pasta, most of my patients tell me they prefer the taste to commercial brands they used to eat. Your kids will learn to prefer the taste too.
- Chips – For better taste and better nutrition, opt for sprouted versions of potato chips offered by the Way Better brand, or try Unique brand pretzels.
2. Switch from GMO to non-GMO foods
An easy way to improve your get your kids’ nutrition without drastically altering their diets is to switch from genetically-modified foods to non-genetically-modified foods. While you have probably heard and read about the GMO debate through the media, you may not be aware of the overwhelming evidence that links GMO food consumption to the alarming increase in recent years of food sensitivities and other health related issues (allergies, asthma and gastrointestinal issues) in children.
Because of their young, fast-developing, growing bodies, children face the greatest risk from the potential dangers of GMO foods. In addition, children are three to four times more likely to develop allergies than adults.
3. Replace Non Organic Fruits and Vegetables to Organic Versions
Organic foods cost more, and I realize that many families have a fixed weekly food budget. However, I urge my patients to view organic foods as an investment in the health of their families. Begin by identifying items on your shopping list that you can do without, such as soda, chips, desserts and other non-essential items.
Next check food labels for unhealthy ingredients and chemicals that may negatively impact your children’s health and development. The brain grows at its fastest rate during the first three years of life, and research studies show that proper nutrition is essential to brain development as well as physical development.
Organic foods contain lower levels of pesticides and drug-resistant bacteria than other foods. These lower levels are important because young children are more vulnerable to chemicals. In addition, a diet dominated by processed foods has been associated with a lower IQ. A 2010 study revealed that children who had a diet filled with processed foods diet at age 3 had reduced IQ scores at age 8.5. The study showed that with each measured increase in processed foods, the study participants had almost a two point decrease in IQ.
4. Offer your Children Grass-fed, Organic Meat
Recently, a friend of mine who has three teenage boys — one of whom refuses to eat anything but hotdogs for dinner — expressed her frustration with getting her kids to eat healthier foods. My advice was to take an important first step to better nutrition by feeding her son nitrate-free, grass-fed hot dogs, like the ones made by Applegate Farms. Most hot dogs and other processed meats (like bacon and sausage) on the market are filled with nitrates, antibiotics and steroids, which can disrupt hormone production and balance in young children and can lead to long-term health issues.
5. Lead By Example
Your children look up to you, and you are teaching your children an important lesson with what they see you eat and not eat. Set a clear example for your children. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t cook a separate meal for themselves and for their children; my brother and I ate whatever my mother prepared for us. If you cater to your child’s craving for only certain foods, you are not only creating a picky eater, but also one who will be less apt to sample a variety of flavorful, healthy foods as an adult.
6. Try the One-Bite Rule
As you begin this new lifestyle of healthier eating, your children may need some incentives at first. Be sure to prepare healthy meals with flavors they enjoy. Eating healthy doesn’t mean food has to be devoid of flavor. If your kids like a salty taste, don’t hesitate to use pink Himalayan salt and fresh herbs and spices, all of which are a healthy way to accentuate the flavor profile of a meal. Ask them to take one bite. If they resist at first, try again with the offer of a reward with the renewed attempt.
My wife will often tell my son that he can have his Bliss non-dairy ice cream or chocolate macaroons after he finishes his brown rice pasta with broccoli and raw goat cheese, or that he can go to his playdate after he finishes drinking his green juice. This incentive plan works every single time.
7. Educate Your Children About the Importance of Eating Healthy
Take your children along with when you shop for groceries. Encourage them to read labels and to examine with you the food choices that are available. Teach them how to make sound nutritional choices.
You will be surprised at their level of interest and their ability to retain this important information. I frequently overhear my son proudly telling his friends and their parents that his favorite foods are organic fruits and vegetables, and that the reason he is strong is that he drinks his green juice every day.
These statements are obviously regurgitated from the many casual discussions my wife and I have with him during our trips to the health food market or during our meals together.
I make it a point to remind him that the juice his mother prepares for him each morning is the best way for him to build his muscles, to grow tall and to become a big, strong boy – all attributes that are important for him at this stage of his life. I also reference fictitious or real role models for him. For example, I tell him that his favorite superhero, Superman, drinks his green juice every day and that is how he maintains his superpowers.
Lastly, please be aware that nutrition reform with your children may take some time. Don’t give up if you meet with some resistance at first. This reaction is normal, especially when you keep in mind that all of us, adults and children alike, need time before our taste buds change.
Taste buds are the sensory organs on our tongues that allow us to experience sweet, salty, sour and bitter tastes. Adults have about 10,000 taste buds, and children actually have even more! These taste buds are replaced every two to three weeks or so. If children are used to a sugary cereal for breakfast or processed meat for lunch, for instance, that taste is what their taste buds are used to and therefore will crave. While we may label our kids as “picky eaters,” we have made them that way by training their taste buds to eat certain foods. The good news is that we can re-train them as well.
Be patient, expecting, as with many aspects of parenting, that you will experience two steps forward and one step back, and give your kids plenty of positive reinforcement as they try new healthy foods. With time and encouragement, you will have set your children on the path to a healthier lifestyle of better wellness and nutrition that will serve them well throughout their lives.