By Dr. Mark Hyman
“Dr. Hyman, I’m about to start your Eat Fat, Get Thin Plan, which is completely different from the way my family normally eats,” writes this week’s house call. “I want my kids to eat good food, too. Can they eat the foods on this program? And do you have any tips for helping me trick them into eating healthy foods?”
I can understand how change can become nerve-wracking for parents and kids. Just like you might feel nervous starting a new way of eating, your kids might feel nervous about missing their daily favorites.
The key is to create new favorites together. Build healthy habits for your kids at an early age to create a path toward optimal, vibrant health. That might be tough with picky eaters, but think about the alternative. You don’t want your child to suffer lifelong obesity and poor health.
Looking at the statistics. Four out of ten kids are now overweight and one in seven kids has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), often caused by a high-sugar, nutrient-poor diet. You’ve probably seen a child bounce off the walls after eating too much sugar.
We also see increasing rates of type 2 diabetes, especially in children. Rates have increased more than 1,000 percent in the last decade alone. Tragically, one in three children born today will have diabetes in their lifetime. One in four teenagers has pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes. Our diabesity epidemic continues to rise as food manufacturers peddle junk that we loosely call food.
Our kids today spend far more time eating processed foods in front of TVs and iPads than preparing wholesome meals and then eating and engaging with their families. We have raised a generation of kids that do not know how to cook or feed themselves. To save our planet and save our children, we must stop this cycle. We have to help our kids fall in love with cooking.
Patients often say they don’t know what to feed their kids. Simple: When kids get old enough to eat solid foods, they should mostly eat the same foods that you eat. There is no kid’s menu in Japan. Kids eat raw fish and seaweed. In the African jungle, kids eat bats, crickets and grubs! Do we really need Happy Meals that cause so much suffering down the road?
Why do we give kids the exact foods we avoid as adults? Kids eat pizza, chicken nuggets, potato chips and other Frankenfoods at school and at home. These are the same foods that adults avoid like the plague. We wouldn’t give our dogs a Big Mac, fries and a Coke, but we feed these food-like substances to our kids all the time.
Five Strategies to Get Kids Eating Good Food
While changing your family’s way of eating might seem easier said than done, these five strategies can introduce your kids to good-for-them foods that also taste good:
1. Take things slowly. Ideally, healthy eating should start when your child is young, but don’t let that stop you with older kids. Take it one food at a time so you don’t overwhelm them and you can track which foods work and which don’t. Make the rule that they have to try something three times before they can decide if they like it or not. Please don’t feed babies caffeine, chocolate, stimulants, honey, common allergens (like wheat, dairy, corn, eggs) or whole chunks of food like grapes, meat or nuts. Kids digest vegetables and fruits easier than grains, though you can try hypoallergenic grains like quinoa and brown rice.
2. Involve your kids. Children need to feel included. Get kids in the kitchen cooking with you when they are young (or at any age). Just like adults, they crave meaning and purpose. Helping prepare meals builds their self-esteem and identity. Culinary skills build on different areas of learning and cognition that enhance your child’s brain. Your kids can learn math skills, reading, creativity, planning, science, culture and history while they learn to cook.
3. Make cooking fun. Mixing some fun into their kitchen experience enhances their experience. My kids love listening to music while cooking together. A few well-planned strategies makes cooking attractive and “cool.”
4. Let your kids choose. Kids like options. Brainstorm what to include on the weekly menu. Provide ideas and have them weigh in. Let them pick among different recipes. Children look forward to these meals and you get to teach them about how to design a healthy plate.
5. Have your kids create the shopping list. Teach them how to choose the highest quality fruits or vegetables by showing them what to look for in texture, color and aroma. You can also teach them how to shop the perimeter first and remind them why middle aisles aren’t as healthy. Take them to the grocery store with you and make the chore a treasure hunt for the ingredients you want.
Starting at around two, kids can help you in the kitchen. Your kids can have fun, feel important and learn with fun tasks like taking ingredients out of the pantry or refrigerator and picking herbs from the garden. They can also help assemble dishes, especially simple and colorful ones such as salads. They can crack eggs, measure ingredients and when they get older, peel or grate veggies.
Think of yourself as the chief marketing officer for your kids’ healthy food. Kids are bombarded by powerful marketing messages, so this can feel like a herculean task. But getting your child interested in the kitchen becomes easier when you turn on creativity and appeal to their interests.
When I wanted to encourage healthy eating in my children, I realized that it wasn’t as simple as saying “eat your spinach because it is good for you.” I had to get them interested and excited, so I designed fun, delicious meals and carefully explained why healthy foods are better than processed foods. We had a garden so they could plant, water, weed and harvest the food—and they loved to eat foods right out of the garden.
If your kids are older and have difficulty making healthy changes, this becomes a great opportunity to talk about optimal health. Great documentaries like Fed Up and Supersize Me, which you can watch as a family, help them understand what processed foods do to their bodies.
At the end of the day, setting a good example becomes the most important thing you can do. Walk the walk and talk the talk; your kids will follow.