Aside from the many challenges that we as human beings have in our modern world today, proper nutrition is one of the biggest. In fact, even if we as adults get a handle on eating truly for optimal health and disease prevention, we have another even bigger challenge – feeding our children.
In a world where marketing, advertising, school systems and government programs control so many of our everyday choices, it is one thing to consider the consequences of this on us as adults, and quite another on a child.
Parents who choose to feed their children whole, natural food that is for their best health and development have much to compete against. From attractive colors, packages, toy incentives, cartoon characters to so many other societal factors, our kids are bombarded by a multitude of messages that promote mostly unhealthy food.
This is why in this article, thanks to a recent letter from a concerned parent, we are going to examine how we can handle these outside forces and talk to our children about health and nutrition. For the sake of this article, reference made to children is meant anywhere from 3 to 10 years of age.
Start By Seizing the Most Critical Years
As a parent, one may often think that our children are being influenced by everything and everyone more than us. This can of course feel very draining to think that we always need to explain and prove ourselves, as well as influence our children in the direction we want.
The truth is that although children may bring up outside influences in determining their various decisions, up to about the age of 7 you as a parent, are more in charge of their choices and preferences than you may realize.
Science knows fully today that up to about the age of 7, children literally act like sponges. Before the age of seven, children do not have yet the ability to produce beta brain waves. These are brain waves responsible for critical thought and problem solving. Instead, they are producing either the hypnotic alpha waves or the relaxed theta waves and thus highly suggestible. This causes them to literally soak up their environment, without any critical thought or judgement.
This is huge to grasp as a parent. This means that children at this time are picking up everything, and I do mean everything into their mind and habit formation. This is why when it comes to something like advertising, children are the most vulnerable to the power of suggestion.
The thing to understand then as a parent, is that this can work for or against you. It all depends on how you choose to use this information.
If your child is getting most of its imprinting from you as a parent, with minimal outside influence, you almost have nothing to worry about. The key word is “almost”. If your child is getting most of its imprinting from television ads, school or other sources, then it is like walking backwards on a forward going escalator. You put yourself in the middle of a very big losing battle.
Talking to Children About Nutrition
With the understanding that your young child is easily influenced, you want to use that information for their highest benefit, not harm. Research knows today that when it comes to food and nutrition, these formative years have a huge role to play in how children will approach their food choices as teens, and then as adults. Consequently they determine greatly also what their health will be like. Whether they binge eat, choose processed or fast food, be obese and various other factors are imprinted at this early stage of child development. While for some this may still be hard to believe, the time to take responsibility as parents is now.
So where do you start as a parent? While it would be so great to just sit them down and explain why the commercials, or the school system or their friend’s eating habits are no good, this is most likely not going to work. As adults, whenever we feel lectured, we know how information goes in one ear and out the other. Now imagine how a young child will feel. Thus let us look at the underlying factors and where we first really need to start in order to present them with an environment that is conducive to the most optimal nutritional choices.
1. Take Smart Action With Television Exposure
While many parents may not want to hear this because the television set has become the “modern babysitter”, limiting your child’s exposure is one of the first and most critical areas to start with.
Television has mind-numbing and addictive qualities for adults. Can you imagine the effect it has on children? Aside from the ways of how it may influence their creativity, imagination, relationship, thinking, writing, communication skills and more, it programs their whole being to a certain level of incomplete awareness when it comes to approaching life. It is making for a very docile society where all too often we go numbly through life, rather then keeping a sharp mind and acting consciously with respect to what does not make sense because it has been conditioned upon us.
Children respond first and foremost to visual, musical and tactile stimulation. Spoken word is not their most favorite way to intake or process information. However, this does get easier and better as they age.
So the first place to start is to stop competing against the marketing and advertising on television. While no television would be optimal in my view for young children, this is not a route many parents are ready to take. So here are a few things you can do:
If you watch television with your children, mute the commercials and engage them in some activity during this time. (I always recommend to adults who watch TV, this is a good time to do some stretches and other small exercises, get moving).
Make sure that the program they are watching is most appropriate for their age. It is not optimal for 7 year olds for example to be watching shows about teenagers.
If you are not watching television with your kids, put on movies that you trust, rather than allowing television shows, which you have no control over in terms of what may be shown or expressed.
Some television channels like public broadcasting don’t have commercials to begin with and normally offer much higher value in their content for kids.
2. Don’t Let the School System Be Their Only School
The next stop on this journey is that if your children go to a traditional school system, we need to know what they are picking up from it. In the traditional school systems across the United States and Canada any kind of nutrition taught to children is almost always based on the Food Pyramid or the Food Guide.
While the average parent may not see anything wrong with this, those of us who are interested in optimal health are all too aware of the problems with this approach. Most of the food marketed to kids in schools is based on the two largest subsidies in North America – meat and dairy. Thus, if you are a vegetarian or vegan family, you can be sure your child will feel like there is something wrong with them or their family’s eating habits. In fact regardless if you label yourself as any of the above, or a raw, living food family, or gluten-free, or dairy-free family or whatever other example you may have, the school system is not normally inclusive of such lifestyles.
In fact one of the toughest foods to compete against in schools thanks to the famous milk campaign, is milk. Due to years of conditioning on the population, it has most adults in North America, hence children, convinced they need cow’s milk for good health. If you are still in this group, please research for yourself the numerous problems with dairy for optimal health.
So here are a few things you can do:
Take initiative and be open to talking to your child’s teacher about your family’s nutritional preferences so that they may be sensitive to other approaches in their teaching.
Engage yourself in any parent committees that may be determining what foods get served, given or taught to children in your child’s school.
Always pack a nutritionally balanced lunch for your child to take to school. When it comes to this, engage your child in the food you are packing for them, talk to them about why you are putting a banana in their lunch, or why some celery sticks. Make them feel empowered and accountable for picking their own food too. Make them feel like they have choice in the matter, by always presenting 2 or more optimally healthy options. For example, “would you like to choose strawberries or apples today as your fruit?” This will help with their confidence level if other kids try to pick on their lunch…. it won’t be “my mom makes me eat this”, but “I picked this”.
Have an open dialogue with your child, no matter what their age. When they learn about any kind of food, present also your family’s thoughts about this and why this is so. Explain openly that not everyone eats the same things or considers the same things healthy. Use other cultures and animals as an example, this makes it more real and easy to understand for them.
Try to never negate or strongly put down any opposing nutritional views. This will make your child suspect and you know how rebellious our minds can be, no matter how little. Always work with where the child is, and what information is being passed onto them and cleverly show the other side of the story.
3. Prepare Accordingly For Social Events
This is one of the toughest areas. You may be doing everything great at home and sending them to school with optimally healthy food of your choice, but then they get invited to a birthday party or there is some big holiday. What do you do?
Most parents will think nothing of it, and use lines like “oh it is just this one time” or “a slice of cake won’t kill them”. However, when it comes to children, this approach is only going to make your life harder, not easier. Children do not work based on exceptions, they work best based on consistency. To them an exception, means nothing more than an option at another time of their choosing.
Thus how to handle parties or holidays, or other social events is not an easy task, nor can it be explained in this short section properly. While I can leave you with guidelines, you really need to look at this area on a much broader level because this isn’t only about your child, it is about you and your life. What and how do you choose to celebrate? What do you consider treats? All this and more must be decided clearly by you first before you try to instill a good nutritional foundation in your kids. So here are a few guidelines in how to handle this:
Re-examine what a treat means. Putting something in the body that takes away from its optimal health and function is not a treat.
Send your child to birthdays or other events with a dish from your home for others to enjoy, so that your child has something they can comfortably eat. Speak to the guardians in charge of the event about accommodating this in a sensitive manner.
Talk to other relatives and family members about your choices. There is surely that one uncle or grandma in every family that does not see the big deal in giving your children foods, which you know are not optimal for their health or you promote at home. Communicate before events with these individuals clearly and confidently to respect your choices.
Experiment with optimally healthy, nutrient dense desserts and cakes. There are countless things we can make today that are dairy-free, sugar-free and not processed that resemble cakes and sweet treats of all flavors and consistencies.
Talk to your child before the event. Explain in different ways, depending on their age and level of awareness, that there will be some different food there, that your family does not normally choose to eat. Build tolerance for the other side’s choices, while fostering your child to be proud of their choices. (Remember the animal examples, if frogs went to a party at the bird’s house, they would not be eating seeds. There is nothing wrong with the seeds, just that frogs will choose other food that makes them feel good.)
4. Don’t Underestimate A Child’s Intellect
Having said all of the above, our discussion would not be complete if we did not come back to the conversation route. All too often when we think of explaining some higher concept to children, we push it aside thinking that they “just won’t get it”.
Even though a child’s brain is not able to process information the same way as an adult’s, we need to understand that often so, they are capable of understanding way more than we give them credit for. It all depends on how it is presented to them.
The most cohesive and healthiest families from every angle, are ones where there is constant, open communication. Also where parents are present for their kids, and really take the time to both listen and talk to them, foster easier dialogues of every kind. If presented with a tough question about nutrition, just for fun give them the real answer (obviously without scientific words), and see how it resonates with them. It is not going to help anyone to simply tell your chil “this food is bad for you”. Explain your reasoning.
Ultimately, there are so many ways to approach the reason for or against certain food choices. In the end, it is not about how you choose to do so, but whether you do so consistently. Here are a few more ideas:
Get creative and have fun explaining what you know to your child about the body, health and nutrition. This may be a good time to polish up your own knowledge. Today, what we know about the body and nutrition is rapidly changed, compared to what your parents knew when you were growing up.
Remember always to speak in a manner to make them feel empowered in the choices at hand.
Never use fear or threats as a tactic. (Ex: “if you don’t eat this, you will get sick” or “you don’t want to be sick, do you?” or “if you don’t eat this, you cannot have or do….”)
5. You Are Their Number One Role Model
In the end, as much as some parents may not wish to accept this fact, the ball really lies in your court. Through the laws of nature, children imprint their parent’s behavior during the formative years. To a child what they see you do, always takes precedence over what they hear you tell them. This is why you must realize that YOU are their number one role model.
Most parents, say “I know, I know”. But I don’t think we do at all. If we did, then we would not be acting in hypocritical ways in front of our children. You cannot tell your child chips are bad and expect them to take value from that, while you eat them. Whether it is junk food, processed food, whatever drink or food, you need to get your act together first, before you try to influence your children—no exceptions.
If you are teaching them that processed food is unhealthy, why is there a bag of Oreos in the kitchen cupboard or why are you picking up a box of pizza on the way home? If you are teaching them that they need more fruits and vegetables, why do they not see you eating a diet based on fruits and vegetables? Remember that your children cannot eat or have the choice of eating what is not available. Thus be conscious of what goes into your grocery cart and comes home each week.
Bottom line, I cannot stress this enough, you need to take your actions seriously if you are serious about providing your child with a healthy foundation for life, when it comes to their food choices. This goes for the family unit as a whole.
Our discussion would not be complete without pointing out that we must remember that every child is different, and different approaches for different amounts of time may be required.
However, having said this, there is one thing that works almost exclusively across the board for all children (even adults), and that is consistency. This is the magic ingredient for initiating the fastest and most long lasting change. It may start off with kicking and screaming, but is the sure way to get results if you only persevere.
It is also not about approaching their health with any form of extremism. It just simply does not make sense to build a strong health foundation, and “poison” it sometimes. Either something is healthy or it isn’t. Children work best on a black and white platform, as remember they do not have the reasoning skills needed until a much later age. Therefore throwing in foods that you know deep down are not optimal for them “sometimes”, like on holidays or parties, weakens everything you are trying to teach them. Social conformity may be easy, but it does not create the optimal outcomes—just look around at our society.
Being a parent is one of the most challenging things if we take it seriously, especially today when there are so many factors pulling your child’s focus in so many different ways and competing for their attention.
However, starting with yourself is always, always the key. When it comes to healthy food choices, make sure that you get clear on your own priorities first. Establish a healthy home, healthy kitchen and healthy activities with consistency and it will be that much easier to have the members of your family flow with what is, when they see it as the norm in your home.
If you are trying to turn things around from the family being used to a certain way of eating or being, I understand this will pose the greatest challenges. However, may you hold the intention in your mind and heart that you are building the foundation for their optimal health and well being. Thus be patient, be strong and persevere. The results are so worth it to know that when your child grows up without weight problems, allergy problems, regular infections and other ailments, you played a major role in that outcome.
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