A Savvy Guide to Happy, Healthy Eating for Families

Amy Rees
April 6, 2018

Eating well is a joy. In truth, eating good food is a joy. Eating with your family is a joy. Eating well is a lifelong joy.

So, where's the joy at your family's dinner table? Woefully missing, all too often. A parent serves up a meal with sides of guilt, hope, and regret. A child frowns at the offering before he even begins to inspect it. This isn't supper; it's the opening salvo in a doomed diplomatic mission.

As with all things in parenthood, a little knowledge and a lot of perspective together go a long way to sorting things out. Together, they just might bring back the joy!

Our Savvy guide to happy, healthy eating for families:

The Biggest Picture

In our experience, what makes room for the joy is banishing the other, darker emotions from the room.

Your choice for lunch—not to mention your child's reaction to said choice—is not the verdict on your worth as a parent. If you go to a lot of trouble, you're likely to feel pretty invested in lunch. Frankly, since you spend all day and night going to lot of trouble for your little one, you're going to feel pretty invested in lunch even if you slapped it together in under 30. Seconds, that is. Try to diversify that investment, or at least acknowledge it openly to yourself and perhaps your child. 

The savvy-est voice in this area is Ellyn Satter. In her classic books, Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense and How to Get Your Child to Eat ... But Not Too Much, Satter articulates a division of food responsibility that we return to far more frequently than three times a day. Basically, Satter breaks it down this way:

Your responsibility: What, where and when to eat

Your child's responsibility: Whether and how much to eat

Simple, huh? Simplistic, no. You are the grown-up: you decide (within reason and with a caring understanding of your child's needs and abilities, which of course vary practically hourly in preschoolers) what to offer. You decide where she has her meal. You decide when it's time for a meal or a snack and when it's not. Seems fair. She decides whether she wants to eat what you've offered when and where you've offered it. And she gets to decide how much of what you've offered she wants to eat. Seems fair.

And yes, that means if you offer a banana and a bagel as a replacement for every other offering, that's on you. And yes, that means if she didn't eat a bite of your offered lunch and is hungry and cranky well before snack time, that's on her—again, within reason. Don't starve your child, but holding the line for a bit before (a perhaps earlier) snack time isn't going to hurt—and will likely help a great deal at lunch time tomorrow and the days after that.

An aside: this division of responsibility has surprisingly wide application in parenthood. Getting dressed, for instance. You buy the clothes and make certain weather-specific requirements. He picks the rest. If he looks like a hobo at preschool, it's on him, not you. Sticking to your own responsibility is remarkably effective at taking meddlesome emotions out of daily tasks.

As Always, Actions Speak Louder than Words

Compared to our preschoolers and their constant state of motion, why is it that parents are so tired? Epiphany: because parenting is not just saying, but doing too, and saying and doing the same thing, at the same time, even when contrary to decades of pre-kiddo habits! No example is more fitting than food. If you sit down for lunch, with a fruit and a vegetable on your own plate, every time, so will your children. Usually. If you grab a bite on the run, always returning to the same, quick lunch-substitute, so will your children. Always. Nag, preach, cajole, beg, thunder, sigh, harrumph all you wish, but modeling happy, healthy eating is the way to shared happy, healthy eating—there's just no way around it. And the same goes for your spouse and other caregivers—healthy eating, like all things, requires consistency and a united front.

Words, though, are important. One mom we know has had great success with repeating "you never know—tastes change" with her little ones. In her house, that gives them to space to try something (or not) and like it (or not) at different times, with different results. The taste of foods changes over seasons, and a person's taste for a particular food develops over time. Maybe he'll like it next time; "you never know—tastes change." (Betsy Brown Braun's Just Tell Me What to Say has excellent scripts to put words in your mouth that will get supper into your picky eater's mouth.)

If At First You Don't Succeed...

Trust us—it makes us at Savvy wince too. Are we really going to exhort you weary parents just to be patient? All you are is patient! Sigh. But the only way to see if tastes change, the only way to keep things truly varied and interesting and rich in the world of food, is to keep offering new (and even previously rejected) foods from time to time. Just try to do so without the visual of your head and the wall and all that banging... Keep in mind Satter's division of responsibility. Just like you kept offering green beans or squash or what-have-you to your tongue-thrusting food critic in the highchair at nine months, so must you offer green beans or squash or what-have-you to your suspicious preschooler at the table. Perhaps this time with ranch dressing for dipping.

Sneak, Dip, Rename, Add Cheese

When it comes to nutritious meals, do what you gotta do. Get the vitamins in, just like you do for yourself. If you could get a serving of veggies into your scrambled eggs by adding pureed cauliflower, wouldn't you? If you could turn a starch into a veggie by slipping pumpkin into your mac-and-cheese, you would. If adding a little soy or putting a little dish of thousand island dressing on the side made your whole plate disappear... wait, you do that all the time! So, do it for your kiddos too. Be a hero, not a martyr. Sneak in what you can, dip the rest, and get the stuff down. Call the offending food something new. Add cheese (yum—salty, savory...). Don't let the dipping, cheese, renaming stuff turn into mealtime tyranny—back to Satter's division of responsibility—but, hey, give it a whirl to get some nutrients down without a struggle from time to time. 

What's with the Green Stuff?

For some kids, at some times, there's no dip/cheese/name/sneak yet conceived by a scheming parent that is going to get something flecked with green down the hatch. When this is your kid, at this time, we'd advise for everyone's sanity to give it a break. And then go back to the trying again, a bit down the road. And sneak what you can get away with. Perhaps being creative will work—eating fresh mint leaves is both delicious and unarguably green. Perhaps dipping will, in fact, work. We watched a card-carrying no-green tot devour parsley dipped in saltwater at last year's Seder table. Perhaps stirring some actually almost tasteless frozen chopped spinach into otherwise adored chicken noodle soup will end green apartheid. Perhaps not, in which case, like we said, give it a break for a while. Add it to the long parenthood this-too-shall-pass list.

The Wide World of Grains

Keep an open mind: pasta comes in all sorts of colors and contents, as well as shapes. Rice is always brown before it is husked into white. Quinoa isn't a prompt to say "gesundheit." We were raised with little or no whole grains in our diets. We also didn't have car seats or recycling bins. Add whole grains to the tally of modern parenthood's glimmers of progress.

Keep the Rules Few But Firm

Shot through this whole approach to happy eating is a repeating thread of ease, moderation, reasonableness. All of which sets up beautifully the very few, very important rules you must insist on keeping. Lots of inspired parents establish house rules or family creeds to guide behavior. (We know one who boiled everything down to "don't lie, don't play with matches, and be nice to your brothers and sisters"—and we can't think of anything that's missing there, but that's another article....) With food, there are a few bright-line rules that make sense to keep, or at least to aspire to keep.

One pertains to juice. As a matter of principle, you should keep juice to an absolute minimum for your kids. It's empty calories, it affects their behavior, it replaces other healthy options. It's great fun at a birthday party; it's not necessary at other meals and snacks. That goes for diluted juice, too. Water is always a healthier option; milk often is; and a piece of whole fruit may well be what you both want as a substitute.

Another rule has to do with calcium-rich foods. Without requiring you to get an advanced degree as a dietician, you do have to learn a bit about calcium and where it's found. Because your child simply must get enough calcium in his diet. Here are the basics:

Calcium requirements

1-3 years old = 500 mg/day
4-8 years old = 800 mg/day
9-18 years old = 1300 mg/day

Calcium sources

Cheese: 100-200 mg/oz or slice
Milk (any type: cow, goat, enriched rice milk or enriched soy milk): 300 mg/8 oz
Yogurt: 300-400 mg/8 oz 

Got a baby calf for a child? You're set, at least as to calcium, though you're still back in the responsibility world of offering enough variety that your child eats something other than milk as a meal. Got a child who hasn't touched milk since it left the breast or bottle? You're going to have to get it down that cute little gullet some other creative ways. Including (gasp!) chocolate milk and calcium gummy bears, as needed. It's that important. 


Go forth, and eat! Be happy and healthy and wise! 

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    Hey Cleveland Moms! Would you like to meet Bobby Flay, Sunny Anderson, Sara Moulton, or Cat Cora!? And do you have a healthy recipe you would like to share with people? You should join the Aetna Healthy Food Fight at healthyfoodfight.com . The contest is coming to Cleveland! on September 11-12, but the deadline to sign up is September 8th. Good luck to all who decide to enter!

    over a year ago


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