We all know that establishing healthy eating habits begins early. The bond between a mother and child begins with that first feeding. The connection between food and human bonds continues to grow as the mother provides this very basic necessity. Food becomes associated with comfort and safety. This bond that revolves around food does not have to end when the baby starts eating finger foods. The best way to assure that your child develops healthy eating habits is to make it a fun time that everyone shares together…but beware, there are dangers and obstacles along the way.
Between infancy when that first important bond is established and the time when a preteen or teenager starts cooking in preparation for adulthood, there is a gap in the food bond. These important years can be lost, even though they are the most important in establishing lifelong eating habits. Children are bombarded by hundreds of images and messages everyday promoting unhealthy snack foods and habits that result in a number of problems later on. After all, a child who prefers green beans over potato chips will not result healthy quarterly profits. The only ones getting healthy by these unhealthy advertising campaigns are the corporations who prey on those at a most impressionable age. Instead of producing children with healthy eating habits, we end up with the next generation of junk food junkies. This sets them up for a lifetime of the health related problems that go along with it. What is also lost is that bond that revolves around food. In extreme cases, eating disorders can develop. But fear not, the situation is not hopeless and there are many things that parents can do with their young children to keep the connection going and help them to avoid the dangers that lurk outside of the refrigerator door.
The answer to the dilemma lies tucked somewhere behind the sea of crayon pictures and magnets that hold them up for all to admire. We are more likely to want to do something that is fun over something that is not fun. If something is not pleasant we are likely to avoid it, right? Kids do not jump up and down shouting, “Do it again, do it again!” over things that are not fun. So, dear Watson, the key to getting children to eat healthy foods is to make it fun. Many times, it is difficult when the children are very small. Their hands have not developed the fine motor control that they will have later. Their attention span is fleeting. So what is a parent to do? Here are a few suggestions that may help to solve this perplexing dilemma.
First, children love making and doing things. They love eating things too. We all know that if we do not provide them with enough time for doing things, they will find their own creative substitutions. If we combine making things, doing things, and eating things, it is a sure winner. Making fun things with food can help to develop not only healthy eating habits, but it can help to develop fine motor skills and provide stimulation as well.
Raw vegetables such as cauliflower, zucchini, green beans, red lettuce, carrots, and bean sprouts provide an entire art box of creative ideas. First start with a plate. Think of the many ways that a child can make a picture out of the vegetables. You could make a face by putting down a bed of lettuce leaves and using a carrot for the nose, cauliflower eyes, and green beans for the mouth. Add some bean sprouts for hair, or perhaps some ranch dressing for dimples. With a little imagination, carrot sticks could become the legs of a dog with a zucchini sliced lengthwise for the body. Carrot sticks, green beans, or bean sprouts could easily become a field of grass with pretty flowers. I am sure that your child will have thousands of ideas. An adult will have to cut them into appropriate pieces, not too big for little hands. They can be easily stored in ziplocs in the refrigerator.
Another idea is to use healthy cereal, such as granola. Give them some different sizes of containers and let them pour from one container to another. They can eat a little along the way. How about having them throw cherry tomatoes into a cup. Help them make a vegetable train that snakes and curves right into their mouth. Pretend that cauliflower is an alien and you have to eat it before it eats a population of “earthlings” in the form of peas. The sillier you get, the more fun they will have. If you have to help them with ideas in the beginning, that is great. Play with them, it will help to keep that bond growing and make it even stronger.
Who says that eating vegetables has to be boring? If you make it fun, it builds an entirely different outlook on cauliflower and Brussels spouts. They will remember good associations and fun times connected with vegetables as a child. They may not remember where those connections come from, but they will remember the fun and closeness that was the result. Playing games with vegetables is a great way to build motor skills, provide important stimulation, promote closeness, and build healthy eating habits long before they can understand the unhealthy messages that they will be bombarded with soon enough. Playing with their food is good for them, as long as it is healthy and they eat it in the end.