You know that picture-perfect, always put together, and ready-with-something-for-dinner mom?
I wasn’t her. This was my version of banana bread so I was more of the messy hair jeans-wearing, not-really-sure-what’s-happening-from-one-meal-to-the-next, kind of mom.
My children were always loved and cared for. We had amazing adventures, loads of fun and plenty of yummy food. What we didn’t have is a well thought out meal plan or multicourse dinners on the table every night.
For the record, it’s not that I can’t cook. It’s more that I’ve never really wanted to. I had a few dishes I made that I think are pretty tasty but anything that required more than 20 minutes of time in the kitchen for me felt like a waste.
As a working mom with a busy work schedule, when I did get time with my kids? I would rather we spend it playing together as opposed to being held up in the kitchen. Point being, I didn’t really cook. But I do believe strongly in the value of good nutrition and for a healthy, whole-foods diet for children.
Luckily, I found a few tricks that allowed us to stick to those recommendations, without requiring too much of my time in the kitchen.
Here are some of my best tips:
1. Make a Schedule:
Children need to eat every three to four hours: three meals and two snacks a day and lots of fluids. If you plan for these, your children’s diet will be much more balanced and they will be less cranky because they won’t be famished. I put a cooler in the car when I was out with my kids and kept it stocked with carrots, pretzels, yoghurt and water so we didn’t have to rely on fast food.
2. Plan Dinners:
If thinking about a weekly menu is too daunting, start with two or three days at a time. A good dinner doesn’t have to be fancy but it should be balanced:
Whole-grain bread, rice, or pasta; butternut or sweet potato
A fruit or a vegetable;
A protein source like lean meat, chicken, fish, cheese or beans and some healthy fats.
I often made simple soups or Mince bolognaise ahead of time and then freeze it. At dinnertime, I would heat it up and add whole-grain bread and a bowl of cut-up apples or melon to round out the meal.
3. Don’t Become a Short-Order Cook:
Initially, I got into a bad habit. I would make two suppers—one that I knew the kids would like and one for my husband and I. It was exhausting. I then decided I would prepare one meal for everybody and serve it family-style so the kids could pick and choose what they want. Children often mimic their parents’ behaviour so these days my grown-up kids eat most foods.
4. Bite your Tongue:
As hard as this may be, try not to comment on what or how much your kids are eating. Be as neutral as possible. Remember, you have done your job as a parent by serving balanced meals; your kids are responsible for eating them. If you play food enforcer, saying things like “eat your vegetables”, your child will only resist.
Introduce new foods slowly. Children are new-food-phobic by nature. I told my kids that their taste buds sometimes have to get used to a flavour before they will like the taste. A little hero worship can work wonders too. My son refused to even try oranges until I told him that Spider-Man ate them to stay healthy and strong. Oranges are now his favourite winter fruit.
5. Dip It:
If your kids won’t eat vegetables, experiment with condiments and dips. My daughter tried her first whole vegetable when I served her a thinly cut carrot with some hummus.
6. Make Mornings Count:
Most families do not eat enough fibre on a daily basis and breakfast is an easy place to sneak it in. Look for high-fibre cereals for a quick fix. Or do what I did and makeup batches of whole-grain pancake and waffle batter that will last all week.
Whole-Grain Pancake and Waffle Batter Recipe: For a batch that serves five, sift together 2 cups whole-wheat or gluten-free flour, 4 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1 Tbs. honey. When you’re ready to cook, mix in 2 Tbs. ground flax meal, 2 cups water, 3 Tbs. canola oil, 1/4 tsp. vanilla and 2 Tbs. applesauce.
7. Get Kids Cooking:
If your children become involved in choosing or preparing meals, they’ll be more interested in eating what they have created. Take them to the shops and let them choose fruits and veggies for you. If they are old enough, allow them to cut up vegetables and mix them into a salad. Although my youngest refused to eat fresh fruit, he and I would bake banana or apple muffins together and he always ate them once they were ready. Apple was the first whole fruit he started eaten as a teenager.
8. Cut Back on Junk:
Remember, YOU and not your children are in charge of the foods that enter the house. By having fewer junk foods around, you will force your children to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products.
9. Allow Treats:
Having less healthy foods occasionally keeps them from becoming forbidden and thus even more appealing. We called chocolates, chips, and biscuits “sometimes” foods.
10. Have Fun:
The more creative the meal was, the greater the variety of foods my kids ate. We made smiley-face pancakes and give foods silly names. Broccoli florets are “baby trees” or “dinosaur food”. Anything mini is always a hit too. I often used cookie cutters to turn toast into hearts and stars which the children loved. The age-old saying of “don’t play with your food” can maybe be relaxed somewhat, a little playing with your food is sometimes in order.
11. Be a Role Model:
If you’re constantly on a diet or have erratic eating habits, your children will grow up thinking that this sort of behaviour is normal. Be honest with yourself about the kinds of food messages you are sending. Trust your body to tell you when you are hungry and when you are full, and your kids will learn to do the same.
12. Adjust your Attitude:
Realize that what your children eat over time is what matters. Having popcorn at the movies or eating an ice-cream sundae are some of life’s real pleasures. As long as you balance these treats with smart food choices and physical activity, your children will be fine.
Kath Megaw (BSc Dietetics Hons, Diploma Paediatric Dietetics) holds four medical qualifications including a paediatric dietetic qualification from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. She has been published in the Epilepsia journal on the use of the paediatric ketogenic diet in third-world settings and frequently speaks to groups of both professionals and parents on infant and childhood nutrition. Kath is the author of Real Food, Healthy, Happy Children (Quivertree Publications), the co-author of Feeding Sense (Metz press), The Low Carb Solution for Diabetics (Quivertree Publications), as well as co-author of Weaning Sense and Allergy Sense (Quivertree Publications). Kath has been in private practice for over 18 years and is the founder of Nutripaeds, a paediatric dietetic practice.