My children are 12, 10 and 3. My chance to impart our family values, educate them and feed them well is by no means complete. Yet I recently reread an excerpt from a 1992 Cornell University study that states, “Children’s eating habits are formed by the time they’re twelve years old.”
Yikes. My 12-year-old eats vegetables like they are candy, but he can still be very picky and stubborn about many foods. Have I squandered my window of opportunity with him to form good habits?
No, I don’t think my window has closed. Despite his tendency to dig in his heels and resist new meals, he has been exposed to a wide variety of foods and he has heard me. He knows which foods are good for him and why, and which ones offer little nutrition or have been shown to contribute to disease. He may not select these healthful choices as often as I wish, and he may possess more of a sweet tooth than I can fathom, but he is only in sixth grade, so he will still be eating in my kitchen for another six years. My window is definitely still ajar.
Rereading this study got me thinking about the past 12 years, specifically where I succeeded and where I dropped the ball. So as we enter a new year with the promise of a new start, here are 10 food-related behaviors that, if I could begin parenting afresh, I would either duplicate because I triumphed or redo because I didn't.
1. Stop the food battles before they start. I know (and have preached) that we should never wage battles with our kids over food. We should influence what is served and when, and empower the kids to decide how much. Then we should let it rest. Well, I can’t say I was an angel here. So I plan to do better. My kids will not starve, and I will remember that the more they are exposed to a food and the more often they try one bite without stress or argument, the more likely they will relax and enjoy it. Watch me step away from the battlefield this year.
2. Instill a calm before meals. Too often I found myself rushing into dinner, which meant I ate too fast, sped through our moment of thanks, responded to the kids less mindfully than I might have liked and barely enjoyed our time together as a family. Even one minute of silence or five deep breaths before eating can change the entire feel of the meal, enabling you to relax into the moment and truly find more joy. I am all about finding the joy with my kids.
3. Explain nutrition to kids. Teach them why they need protein, the advantages of eating a variety of colors and foods, the benefits of healthful fats and why sugar can be harmful. Be matter-of-fact and age appropriate. Our kids will spend more time eating meals away from us than with us, so educate them.
4. Feed babies whole foods from the moment they start solids, and no sugar or artificial food dyes. According to Plato, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” I concur.
5. Teach kids to cook. Yes, my boys make their own oatmeal waffles almost every weekend, are quick with a knife and are masters at dishes. But could they healthfully feed themselves if they departed for college tomorrow with just a pot, a pan and a limited budget? Sadly, no. This is my personal goal for them this year. Please hold me to it.
6. Keep consistent. Consistency is easier said than done in every aspect of parenting, yet so important when establishing eating habits. Set your family rules around mealtimes, such as trying one bite, the frequency of dessert, acceptable snacks and who is responsible for the dishes. Then stick to them.
7. Prioritize family dinner. Even once a week. Studies show that eating together builds a closer family, encourages communication, expands vocabulary and develops healthful eating habits. What’s not to prioritize?
8. Include protein at every meal and snack. It is amazing what this nutrient can do for a child’s mood, energy and ability to focus. Not to mention, it builds the brain, skin, hair and nails.
9. Teach kids what holidays and celebrations are really about.These occasions are a time to spend with family and friends, participate in a fun activity or be active together, not just an opportunity to consume a lot of food and drink. When our kids are teenagers and win a sports championship, or when they are adults and receive a promotion, we hope they will understand that celebrating does not need to be focused on food and drink.
10. Don’t beat yourself up. It is okay if the pizza delivery man seems to dial himself some nights. There is always tomorrow. And if you stay with it, tomorrow just might be full of kale chips. Yum.
Parents, what a happy 2015 it will be if we give our kids a year full of these positive food messages, loads of green vegetables and as little candy as possible. This is a way of saying Happy New Year to our children for decades to come.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, January 1, 2015.