Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Raising Healthy Kids: Eat Your Vegetables

How many times have you heard this mind-boggling phrase: "I can't get my kid to eat vegetables."?

Or maybe "My kid just doesn't like vegetables"?

It always leaves me wondering if, at some point, without me realizing it, eating vegetables stopped being considered crucial to good health.

Because they are. And if they're crucial to good health, our kids should be eating them. Period. Non-optional. In our house, this falls under the Ironmom Tough Shit Policy. In other words, Tough Shit kid, you're eating your vegetables.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. In reality, there's four key things I do to keep my kids eating healthy.

1) Model healthy eating. This is the hardest one. I was busted out by my daughter yesterday for taking a sugary sample from the Trader Joe's sample lady when we had set ourselves out on a post-Halloween no-sugar challenge. Whoops! Setting a good example is hard work dammit. But it's essential step numero uno if you want healthy kids. Filling our own plates with veggies is the best way to send the message that this is the way to healthy eating. "Do as I say, not as I do" never ever works.

2) Explain why vegetables and fruits are essential to good health. Do not rely on your kids "Health" classes to do this in school. Chances are, there's a Coke machine right outside the classroom door. Although some school are catching up (one here in town actually has a garden), you can't rely on anyone but yourself when it comes to nutritional advice.

Information is a powerful tool. A friend of mine once told a group of our kids "if it says Hydrogenated on the label, just substitute the words "cancer-causing". My kids became ardent label-readers and to this day, they will turn down even the most delectable treat if the word "hydrogenated" appears anywhere on the packaging. That was a great lesson for me to not shy away from letting my kids know exactly why I make the food choices that I do, in powerful language.

3) Make it non-optional. This is where the Tough Shit Policy comes into play. You are the parent. They are the kids. They have to do what you say. Now I think my kids would tell you that I very rarely employ the Tough Shit policy. I'm a big believer in picking which hill you want to die on. But when it comes to nutrition, I'm ready to stand and fight.

"A meal is a protein and a vegetable, with an optional fruit" is something you'll hear around our house frequently. That's just me reminding the kids of how to prioritize their eating. Except for breakfast, every meal or snack I set out has vegetables in it, or vegetables on the side. Not eating your vegetables? Not an option.

4) Make it fun. It's not like I force my kids to eat things they hate. They can go to the farmer's market or store with me and pick out whichever veggies and fruits strike their fancy. We like to include all sorts of different veggies in our repertoire: jicama sticks, snap peas, lightly steamed broccoli with teriyaki dipping sauce, carrots with hummus, cucumbers with tzatziki, seaweed snacks, kale chips, and the good old Big Ass Salad. Having our own garden for years has been the best way to make sure they eat lots of veggies. When you can go out the back door and pick the snap peas yourself, they taste infinitely better. And we can grow fun stuff like purple carrots and little orange tomatoes.

So this is how it comes to pass that when we went to a Red Robin's for dinner on a road trip recently, my son orders a chicken caesar salad, and my daughter asks for a steamed veggie teriyaki bowl (which has been her favorite for years and for some reason they just cut from their menu. Boooo Red Robin!). It never ceases to amaze the waiters. The fact that they always comment on my kids' food choices makes me realize how rare they are.

With the words "childhood obesity epidemic" on everyone's big worry list, it's clear that it's time to take kids' nutrition back into our own hands and put the phrase "Eat your vegetables" back into the national vocabulary.


Liz said...

Great post! I'm curious to know if your kids genuinely enjoy exercise in addition to eating vegetables. I was just talking to my father the other day about how he used to take my brothers and me on "mandatory" hikes and bike rides even when we would have preferred to laze around. We were pretty active children/teens and did lots of team sports, but my parents definitely made exercising together in the outdoors (and eating vegetables) a huge priority. I resented it at the time, but now, my brothers and I all seem naturally inclined to pursue exercise on our own (running, biking, skiing, surfing, hiking, etc) and we don't really struggle with our weight or health. At the same time, some of our extended family members who grew up in an exercise-encouraged-but-optional household are dealing with obesity and a general lack of motivation to exercise. Do you find that you've been able to inspire your kids to want to exercise for themselves? It's been fascinating to me to see how being forced to exercise as a child/teen has turned me into someone who loves running and other outdoor activities as a young adult. I'm curious to see if the same phenomenon happens consistently in other health-minded families, especially since your kids seem to eat so well!

Robin said...

I'll have to write up a post on kids and exercise. But the short answer is that yeah, it falls under the Tough Shit policy too, LOL. My parents were similar to yours, and both my sis and I are very active as adults. Our kids do a lot of voluntary exercise (Asa takes 8 dance classes plus karate, plus water polo in the summer, Mackenzie is going for his black belt in karate), but we're also not above hauling them outdoors for hiking and biking.

Caratunk Girl said...

I think the tough shit policy should be law. I freaking love it.

Actually, my parents had that policy...

Robin said...

Yeah, I think my parents did too :-)

Jason said...

This is awesome.

As you saw we had PB&Js with apples and celery for dinner. I offered him a choice of PB&J with two sides of his choice from banana, apple, celery or carrots OR he could have tortellini with green beans.

He chose the PB&J obviously, but in his next breathe he asked when we were having mushrooms again. I just love hearing him ask for these items.

I also once told him that McDonald's will cause your butt to grow really big and he chose to tell his dad that he never wanted to eat at McDonald's again. That was awesome.

Even better was he saw an obese woman and said to me that the woman ate too much McDonald's and she heard him. I did not correct him and kept on walking as I felt that maybe just maybe people were allowing this woman to keep eating and telling her it was no big deal, but the problem is it is a big deal. She could be suffering from Type II Diabetes or a whole host of other diseases and sometimes the truth hurts but will always help.

Tracy said...

Amen. I, too, often wonder when vegetables became optional...