For many of us, a new year turns to thoughts of losing weight and getting fit. But when we have kids, we also need to be mindful about how we talk about our bodies and the food we eat.
Before you resolve to start a new fad diet, I checked in with Rachel Pohlman, a registered dietitian at Poe Center for Health Education in Raleigh and mom of two teens, to get some tips for how to talk to our kids about food and get healthy.
Here’s a Q&A.
Go Ask Mom: As a new year approaches, people look to getting in shape. Some look to fad diets and other weight loss strategies that can be unhealthy. What’s the best way to be healthful in regards to food?
Rachel Pohlman: It is best to avoid fad diets and other gimmicks. These may have some short-term success but it is best to look for practices that can be sustained long-term and support your overall health. This starts by being honest with yourself and really looking at your current practices. It may take some tracking to do this. Once this is done, think about an easy first step to take that you can enjoy and sustain. Make it part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
This first step will look different for everyone. It could be to put away screens when you eat, to include a vegetable at dinner every night, to replace a drink with water. Whatever makes sense for you. Practice this for several weeks, keeping in mind it takes a long time to create a habit. If you don’t get it right one day, don’t worry. Just pick up where you left off. Once you are feeling comfortable with your first change, add another step. People tend to create very lofty, broad goals —especially for the new year. Small, realistic steps like those mentioned tend to help us be more successful in meeting our goals.
GAM: Kids practice what we preach, and if we’re constantly worrying about our weight, they often follow. What’s the best way to talk about food and eating with our kids?
RP: It may not always seem like it, but our kids really are watching and listening. When parents put down their own bodies, our kids hear that and internalize it. It can become a part of their own internal voice, leading to negative self-image. When parents eat different food from their kids, kids notice and may wonder what is wrong with their food. Or they may come see healthy eating as a burden that you have to do as you get older.
A great resource on how to feed kids is Ellyn Satter. She highlights a division of responsibility. Essentially, it is the parents job to choose the food and create regular, pleasant mealtimes and model proper behavior. The child controls the amount they eat and learns to behave.
My personal approach is to celebrate the good. Yes, we all enjoy foods that are less healthy and that is OK, but there is also plenty to celebrate with healthy food. I love cooking for my family and share that love with them. I talk about where the food comes from, get excited about the different flavors, colors and textures coming to the table. If my kids are unsure about a food, I give them a chance to explore it, perhaps just taking a “polite bite” to help them get comfortable with something new.
It can take 15 exposures to a new food before a child decides to try it. When you are introducing a new food, it is good to have a safe, familiar food with the meal too so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. And remember, what a child eats at dinner has nothing to do with whether there is a dessert or not. Using dessert as a reward reinforces habits such as eating when not hungry or a distaste for the nutritious food they are being forced to eat.
GAM: A great way for kids to learn about food is getting them in the kitchen. What are some good ways to involve them in food and meal prep?
RP: I have been involving my children in shopping and meal prep since they were in preschool. The more involved and familiar a child is with a food, the more likely they are to try something new. While Ellyn Satter states the parent chooses the food, it is great to get kids involved but with parameters.
I started with taking my kids to the farmers’ market or produce department and asking them to pick out a fruit or vegetable they were interested in trying. I also tried to get them involved with my garden but that didn’t take.
For those of you who have kids that are more inclined to dig in the dirt, it is a great way to build acceptance of a variety of foods. You don’t need a lot of space – you can have herbs growing in a window box or have a container garden on your porch. (Find more on Poe’s website or at #PoeFit on social media.)
When my kids were little, they helped with small things in the kitchen – using safe scissors to trim green beans or herbs, stirring (parent tip – put a cookie sheet underneath the bowl when they stir to catch the spills) and washing. Now that my kids are older, they are involved in menu planning (again with parameters – plan a dinner with at least 4 food groups and can be made in X amount of time) and cooking. When kids first learn to cook, start as a team but let them lead. Make sure they select a meal within their skillset.
GAM: What are some of your favorite healthy recipes that are great for the cold months ahead?
RP: I love making soup and chili in cold weather. It is so comforting. It warms the house and your body. It also feels good to get all those veggies without having a heavy meal. There are many recipes for relatively quick soups to make. Homemade soup also has the perk of avoiding all the added sodium found in packaged soups.
Another go-to for me is roasted vegetables. I think just about anything tastes good roasted. It is also an easy thing to make that doesn’t require a lot of attention. You just toss the veggies with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and whatever seasonings you enjoy (I always add garlic). Put the veggies in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake, tossing once partway through. Do not overcrowd the sheet or you will end up with steamed veggies instead of roasted veggies.
You can find a variety of healthy recipe’s at Poe’s website (the sweet potato fries recipe is the same basic concept as roasting vegetables) and at ChopChop Magazine.
The Poe Center offers a number of nutrition-focused programs for groups. Programs are now available online and can be booked for schools, youth groups, scouts, and other organizations by calling 919-231-4006. Additionally, there are a number of courtesy resources available on their website. #PoeFit is a weekly Twitter series with simple tips on nutrition, physical activity, and gardening. Poe also has several online interactive exhibits, including an interaction online kitchen and online garden. Educational and instructional videos are also available.
Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.