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We all want to raise a healthy eater but what does that mean? And is that the right word.  As I thought of this blog post, I kept adding adjectives – independent, adventurous.  Those are the things I really want.  I will say that my son, who is 15, is all those things.

I am not a nutritionist or a food expert but I did raise a child who has a firm grasp of nutrition.  He is proud when he chooses a salad over a hamburger but understands that it’s okay to choose pizza over the salad sometimes.  He loves eating at “exotic” restaurants.  He has ordered like a pro since he was old enough to read the menu.  He’s not afraid to experiment in the kitchen or create his own recipes.  He’s still a teenager but I rarely have to worry about food when it comes to him.

It actually surprises me that food stresses many parents out.  They have children who only eat xyz.  And they cater to that.  I think that’s what surprises me most.  I’ve been toying with the idea of writing mini-cookbooks and a friend suggested I write a series on cooking with your kids.  I love the idea and hope that to be a series of books.  Why a series – because not every child is on the same level when it comes to being in the kitchen.  I know teens who have never boiled water and those like my son who were cooking since they were small.  All this thinking made me realize that I can share some information here on raising your child to be food savvy.

Today I am going to share some rules that we have in our house.  I am not perfect and I will tell you there were a number of failed experiments at dinner.  Our favorite story – My son was about 4 and I was struggling to get him to eat veggies.  He just wasn’t going to do it.  It was late summer and tomatoes were beautiful.  Tomato, cucumber – Bob and Larry.  This was also during a huge Veggietale phase in our house so I made a Bob and Larry salad.  I was so proud of my ingenuity.  I served the salad to my son who promptly started crying – I had murdered his favorite cartoon characters.  I’m not sure I was able to get him to eat anything that night but I will tell you that I felt horrible.

Around that same time, I discovered I could hide bits of cauliflower in his mac and cheese.  One day he informed me that cheese sauce made him suspicious because he wasn’t sure what else I was hiding in there.

Oh well, live and learn. So on to the rules.

1. Lead by example – if you won’t eat it, then your kids won’t.  If you have an allergy then be clear as to the reasons why you want your child to eat the food.  It’s okay not to like a food as an adult, this leads to rule #2

2. Be Honest – don’t lie about food.  We often discuss what we like or don’t like.  If me or my husband have something on our plate that we don’t like, we don’t smile at our child and go “yummy” as we eat it.  There are somethings I love that my husband just doesn’t like but it’s unfair if we only eat what he likes so we swap foods.

3.  Eat it first and eat it fast.  This might seem like a horrible rule but the truth is there are some things in this world that are incredibly good for us and don’t have that many calories.  Vegetables are really what I am talking about here.  I have taught my son that if you have a food you don’t like but it needs to be eaten (for one reason or another) then the trick is to eat it first and eat it quickly.  Not so fast you choke on it but enough that it’s gone before you eat the rest of your meal.  The reasoning is that once it’s gone then the foods you like are there to linger on your palate untainted.

4.  Three Bite minimum – this applies most to new foods.  Before my son can declare it is awful, he has to eat three bites.  I read a scientific study once (can’t remember what or where or even if it’s a real study but it doesn’t matter here) that said that it takes three bites to determine whether or not you like a new food.  Sometimes the first bite is unpleasant because it’s a new food.  By the third bite you have gotten used to anything weird about the food and have determined whether or not you like it.  This was a rule that was in effect for the earlier years but not so much anymore since there are few really new foods in our house.

5.  You don’t have to clear your plate unless you want more.  No one is forced to eat all their food in our house but if you want seconds on pasta – you have to eat all your salad.  Even if you just want a second piece of garlic bread.  We make all my son’s friends follow this rule and we have no problems.  Sometimes this means being an overbearing parent.  With some of his friends we’ve even had to say that not finishing all your food means no sweets.  We don’t often have dessert so it’s not much of a problem for us.

6.  If it’s not in the house, then you are less likely to eat it.  You can’t complain about the snacks your child eats if you keep a steady supply of snacks in the house.  If you don’t want them drinking soda – don’t buy it.  Now you can’t control everything but you can control what is in your house.

7.  Give your child some control over their diet.  Starting when my son was 2, we had the snack drawer.  In that drawer was portioned snacks.  If I couldn’t buy them in single serving packages, I broke them up into ziplock bags.  He knew that when he got hungry that drawer was available.  It was mostly filled with things like Pirate Booty, Goldfish crackers, dried fruit, nuts but it was also the place that housed candy.  After the holidays, in went his candy.  Every few months I’d clean out the drawer to keep the supply of old hard candy to a minimum.  I didn’t normally buy candy so I wasn’t worried.  If he ate all his Halloween candy in two days then he didn’t have candy in his drawer until Christmas.  It didn’t take long for him to realize that his drawer was his and his candy lasted longer.  I would snag the occasional chocolate bar but I usually asked because I felt it created a healthier relationship between him and me and him and food.  He didn’t have to feel like he needed to hide the food from me nor did he feel like he had to gorge on it because it would be there when he wanted it.  The other thing is he started telling me what was important and what I could have.

8.  Teach them to try new foods.  Go to new restaurants.  Ask your children what looks like an interesting or fun restaurant.  Cycle through the family.  When my son was doing scouts in a neighboring community we had dinners out before the meeting.  Each week someone picked a restaurant and we ate there.  It gave us the chance to try new places.  You don’t have to eat out weekly to try this.  Give them a chance to  think about new foods.  If you don’t want to eat out for one reason or another – experiment with the grocery store.  Have someone pick a new fruit or vegetable.  Look up ways to cook it if it needs cooking or cut it up and have a family tasting party.  We’ve found things we loved and others that we won’t do again but it has created amazing memories.  And don’t limit yourself to fruits and veggies – try different cheeses or a recipe from a culture you’ve never tried.  Go to an international market.  Watch travel/cooking shows with your kids.  Bizarre foods and The Supersizers Go are great ones to start with.

9.  Get your kids in the kitchen.  Teach them how to cook.  Get them interested in helping decide dinner.  In the beginning it might feel like extra work but once you both get used to the idea, it will be a blessing.  Have your children create a menu and help cook it.  You can choose to utilize one child at a time if you have multiple.  Start this when they are old enough to communicate with you and follow small instructions.  I think I had my son cooking at age 4 but prior to that he would hang out in the kitchen with me while I talked to him about the food or our day or whatever.  Encourage them to experiment.  My son wanted to make a root beer float burger for a recipe contest at age 9 (I think).  My husband thought it sounded gross but I wasn’t going to let that deter my creative cook.  Those burgers weren’t award winning but they were tasty and sparked a love for creativity in the kitchen.  He went on to create an oatmeal cookie with me and sell cookies at a local craft fair.  They were a hit.

10.  There are no bad foods – not really.  The whole concept of eating is to provide our bodies with fuel.  If the food has calories – it has a purpose.  However, we eat too many calories and there are some foods that are more nutritious than others.  We want to teach our children that there’s a place for every food.  But we also want to teach them to desire more nutritious foods over the less nutritious.  This means balance and teaching yourself to have respect for food and your body.  If you have guilt because you cheated on your diet, you are going to send the wrong message to your children.  If we have pepperoni pizza, I ask what sort of fruit or veggie can we add to make it healthier.  Do we want to add them or do we want to have a break?  This often leads my son to say that the tomatoes in the sauce count.  We do talk about calories – how many calories are in certain foods.  Usually it goes like this – “Honey, did you realize there are 100 calories in each of these breadsticks?  Wow I just ate 500 calories but that’s okay because my lunch only had 300 calories so I have room for extra.” Or “Did you know that making popcorn in a little oil is only 200 calories for this entire bowl?  It makes the perfect snack to follow our pizza.” Or “I sure love these pickled carrots and they’re only 20 calories per serving.  I could eat 5 servings and they would be the same calories as the breadsticks from yesterday.  I’m not sure I want 5 servings of carrots but it’s good to know.”

Now I will admit there are times we have to sit our son down and tell him that eating an entire bag of potato chips is not a healthy snack and that the entire bag is x amount of calories.  However, had he eaten just a serving and then ate a couple apples then we wouldn’t be having this discussion.  More often than not, we just let the situation go with a “next time eat some potato chips and some fruit so you get some balance”.  You are a parent – not a saint.  You are going to get frustrated and mistakes will be made but hopefully I have given you some ideas and tools to get your child thinking.  My son thinks it’s funny when I measure my food.  I don’t do it often but I just like having a reminder of what a real serving looks like.  I read a lot of labels and have taught my son to read them as well.  I get him talking about the ingredients and the nutritional information but only when he’s open to the idea.  I know he doesn’t like pickles or fresh tomatoes so I don’t trap him into eating them.  Often, I get them when we eat out – works for me, I love them.  I will admit there are a few times I lie or omit the truth but that’s mostly when we are eating at someone’s house.  I know he doesn’t like cilantro and I asked our hosts not to tell him there was cilantro in the salad.  That was just a couple of weeks ago.  To me, it was more important to get him to eat the salad and be polite, especially since he was going to pick out the tomatoes.

I’d love to hear both sides – what problems do you have getting your kids to eat?  What have been your successes?