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How To Get Your Kids To Eat Healthier - Part I, The Fundamentals

It is mind boggling why so many parents are struggling with their kids not eating fruits and vegetables.  I can never understand why kids need to be rewarded for eating their fruits and vegetables or why parents must disguise and hide veggies in the foods they do eat.  It is difficult enough just being a parent, but bribing our kids to do something as natural and basic as eating?   
Back in the days, growing up on a farm in Southern China, we were fortunate enough to have food on the table.  And any (good or bad tasting) food on the table was “good” food.   The need to convince or bribe someone to eat was utterly unheard of.   However, times have changed.  Because of today’s culture of abundance, world of fast foods combined with working parents’ heavy reliance on caregivers, modern kids’ taste buds have taken a dramatic shift that resulted in what we call “picky eaters”. 
As I sympathize with parents who are struggling with this issue, I feel compelled to share the W.I.S.D.O.M. that I’ve gained through the years of nurturing my son (now nine years old) to become a big fan of not just greens, but the full spectrum of the rainbow.   Take what you can and leave what you don’t want.  I sincerely hope that you may gain something of value through my experience and that this struggle can become a thing of the past.

W.I.S.D.O.M.
When:  When do you start fostering healthy eating habits in your child?  While your child is young, get him accustomed to eating whole foods instead of processed foods.  As lifelong habits are formed early, it is essential that you, as a parent, start nurturing good eating habits at a very young age.  A child's palate is like a blank canvas.  The flavors that you cultivate onto your child's taste buds at an early age will mold his palate for life.  If you regularly feed him convenient junk foods like french fries, pizza, potatoes chips, and sweets at a very young age, he will adapt to liking only these types of foods.  On the other hand, if you prepare his palate with foods made with fresh ingredients as soon as he is ready for solids, his taste buds will become familiar with these flavors.   Yes, we all know it's so much easier and quicker to simply grab packaged, processed and fast foods than to prepare something from fresh ingredients when we're trying to meet the demands of an overstretched schedule.   And yes, it takes time and work to create good eating habits.  But remember, it takes a lot more effort to break bad ones and reverse the damages created by these bad eating habits.  When my son was ready for solid food, instead of feeding him baby foods from the jar, we cooked “baby foods” from fresh ingredients such as carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, chicken, pork, pasta, and rice.  He is so accustomed to eating all kinds of vegetables, now he even enjoys greens some adults shy away from, like bitter melon, watercress, and broccoli rabe. 
Involve your child in the decision making process.  At the grocery store, have him select the fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods that you would like him to eat.  This will not only help him gain knowledge of the various ingredients in the foods he eats, it will also teach him valuable decision making skills.  When my son was little, he didn't really like Chinese eggplant.  Ever since we let him pick them at the grocery store, he now considers Chinese eggplant as one of his favorite vegetables.  Additionally, have your child help out in the meal preparation process.  Depending on your child's age, you can assign tasks such as wash and peel vegetables, crack and beat eggs, or set the table.  A child is more likely to eat the foods he picked and/or helped prepared.  Just like adults, children are much more receptive to the outcome (whether good or bad) if they were part of the decision making process.  Furthermore, asking for your child's help will also show him that he is valued and in turn build his self-esteem and self-confidence. 
Set a good example:  Similar to how kids imitate your demeanor, they will mimic your eating habits the same way.   Don't expect your child to eat the bowl of steamed broccoli while you're stuffing a donut in your face.  A friend of mine told me that her son only eats pizza and McDonalds and does not like any fruits and vegetables.  I then asked her if she eats fruits and vegetables.  And her answer was…you guessed it, “no”.   A trip to the fast food joint should be an occasional treat, not a daily routine.  The chance of your child eating what you don't eat is slim to none.  If you want to broaden your child's palate, you need to set a good example and try different foods yourself.  You can't expect your child to consume healthy foods when you are indulging in junk foods.  Remember, action speaks louder than words!
Designer instinct:  We all have it.  So trust it and use it!   Be creative and have fun with your foods.   There are no picky eaters, just boring foods.  Who would want to eat the same boring turkey sandwich or caesar salad night after night?  Make it fun! As toy and clothing makers use colors, shapes and texture to entice kids, why not use the same strategy to whet their appetites?  The key is variety, variety, and variety!  Who said vegetables must be green? If green is presently not one of your daughter's favorite colors, then instead of forcing her to eat broccoli, green cabbage or spinach, why not serve foods from the other colors of the spectrum - like cauliflower, purple cabbage, orange sweet peppers, or yellow squash?  Just take a stroll down the produce aisle at your local supermarket and you'll be captivated by the rainbow of colors and shapes.
Open to new ideas:  Who said fruits must be eaten as “fruits”?  Why not add them to spice up your favorite savory dishes, like Mango Shrimp Stir Fry?  If your child likes to drink soda because of the fizz, why not create your own healthier version by combining club soda and orange juice or mango nectar?   In the mood for some eggs in the evening, why not enjoy a frittata for dinner?  Going nuts for nuts?  Toss them in your salad or add them to your favorite stir fry dishes like Chicken and Cashew Stir Fry.  Don't want to eat white rice again?  Why not try steamed multi-grains (white rice, brown rice and barley)?  If your son doesn't like his spinach raw in a salad like you do, why not cook it with his favorite American cheese in the form of a quiche or saut√© with garlic and bacon bits?  My son loves fruits, but for some strange reason he did not like bananas.  So instead of forcing him to eat bananas as is, I made him Peanut Butter Nutella Banana Sandwich, banana and mango fruit salads, banana yogurt popsicles.  And now, my little monkey goes bananas for bananas!  Sometimes your child disliking certain food is because of the way it's prepared, not the food itself.  If your child loathes over-cooked mushy broccoli, then maybe you can try preparing it al dente.  Think outside of the cereal box and the possibilities are endless.
Moderation and balance:  As parents, we need to focus on fostering habits of balanced healthy eating and not the idea of losing weight or fear of getting fat.  Healthy diet does not mean limiting ourselves to only eating foods from one food group.  A healthy diet must be balanced and consist of foods from all five food groups (Fruits, Vegetables, Proteins, Dairy, Grains).  It's about not over consuming any particular food, whether good or bad.  As the old adage asserts, “too much of a good thing can potentially be bad for us”.  Foods should be savored and enjoyed, not feared or shy away from.  In moderation, we can even enjoy ones (cookies, cake, chips, candy, etc) that are considered bad for us.  When our body is deprived of a particular food or nutrient, we become off balanced physically and emotionally.  And this imbalance will ultimately lead to overindulgence.  Simple rule of thumb – eat a little of everything.  Remember, a little goes a long way!

More information on the five food groups.