Food. Our love/hate relationship with it basically begins at birth when we push away the baby food jar of carrots and reach instead for the sugary sweet treat.
Our children not only develop their eating habits from us, but their attitudes towards food as well. Children hear and internalize our comments about food, body image and nutrition. They quickly pick up on all the nuances of eating and the psychology surrounding mealtime, such as the care we take to craft bountiful meals on holidays and special occasions, the lively conversations we share at the dinner table, the comfort foods we enjoy while watching movies or the big game, the treats we make that honor our heritage and family history, the dinners we prepare throughout the week, the breakfasts we hastily scarf down (or skip altogether) during the morning rush and the snacks we grab while on the go.
Food is how we bond as a people and family unit. It’s also how we cope with life’s obstacles – visit a local library shelf and you’ll find a cookbook for everything from quick family dinners for picky eaters to comfort food casseroles to those geared toward bachelors (“Man Meets Stove: A Cookbook for Men Who’ve Never Cooked Anything Without a Microwave”), vegans (“Straight From the Earth”) and those with health issues (“The Allergy-Free Family Cookbook”).
But at its root, food is how we nourish and fuel ourselves.
So how can we as parents make sure that the messages we send to our children about food are the right ones? And what steps can we take to ensure our families develop healthy eating habits?
Janet Kramer works as a clinical dietitian for Rainbow Center for Women and Children and noted how very important family mealtime is. Sitting down together as a family to eat a meal not only builds self-esteem, communication skills and fosters a sense of belonging in adolescents but it can also lead to better grades and lower risks of mental health issues, addiction and substance abuse. Kramer urges parents to get children into the kitchen early to help foster healthy relationships with food and meal prep.
“Let them wash off or scrub vegetables or stand on a chair and stir things. Older children can help cut up produce. I’m not at all opposed to teaching kids grown-up skills as soon as they’re ready,” Kramer said. “By helping out in the kitchen, children see that they can be a part of mealtime and it becomes something they value and look forward to. Children can also participate by setting the table or picking flowers to put on the table in a vase. When you grocery shop, let them pick out fruits and veggies they like and try a new vegetable together each month.”
The Kids Cook Monday is an initiative that sends parents a weekly email incorporating an easy, healthy recipe that older children/tweens can prepare, a grocery list of ingredients, cooking tips, videos and family activities.
Sometimes though, despite a parent’s best efforts, family mealtime can turn disastrous by way of a “picky eater.” How do you reach a child who’s only interested in chicken nuggets and mac-n-cheese?
“Trying not to cater to our kids is a fine line to walk,” Kramer said.
She instructs parents to keep putting those small portions of an undesired food onto their child’s plate, again and again. One day, eventually, Kramer said a kid will take a taste. For additional tips and resources, she recommended parents explore The Ellyn Satter Institute (both online at and in print), named for Ellyn Satter, an authority on eating and feeding. Satter created “The Division of Responsibility in Feeding,” now viewed as the gold standard for feeding children.
“Give them a fair chance to get familiar with the food and be patient and persistent,” Kramer said. “Most importantly, offer the same foods to the whole family. Do not become a short order cook.”
Another deciding factor for healthy family nutrition is time – we’re more likely to eat better when we’ve planned out the week’s meals in advance and grocery shopped ahead of time. No one likes having to run to the grocery store to purchase ingredients for tonight’s meal after a long exhausting workday. To better avoid those convenience trips to the glowing lights of a fast food drive-thru, grocery shop on the weekend and have your meals pre-planned so there’s no guesswork on an empty stomach. In my house, we converted one wall into a painted chalkboard surface on which we write out the week’s dinners every Sunday. It helps to see the week’s menu laid out in front of us and it also avoids the “What’s for dinner? I’m hungry!” nightly question from our kids.
“Another tip to save time is to make double batches that you can serve as leftovers or freeze and use when you don’t have time to cook,” Kramer said. “Once the food is cooled, put it into gallon freezer bags and lay it flat in the freezer so it freezes flat and takes up less space. It’ll also make it easier to thaw. I’ll typically make more brown rice than I plan on using and freeze the rest of it to quickly use for another meal.”
Kramer also recommends incorporating a crock pot or insta-pot (electric pressure cooker) into your weekly dinner routine – a true time saver.
And for that all-important after-school and before-sports-practice snack, Kramer always suggests “real food” as opposed to processed. Her go-to’s include fruit, whole-grain crackers, yogurt, peanut butter and cheese sticks.
Contributing Writer