My four year old daughter loves to eat salmon sashimi, risotto and steak. We call her the ‘eat anything kid’ and it makes her beam with pride.
But it wasn’t always this way. She used to be a full out Kraft addict who lived on carbs and sugar. Totally my fault for letting it happen, I own that one hundred percent. Thankfully, I realized what I was doing which no one ever did with me as a child.
Here is how we turned it all around.
When my daughter was just introduced to solid foods she would eat anything, and I mean anything. It amazed us and we would marvel at her as she sucked down cubes of avocado, salmon, pineapple, you name it. Feeding her was a delight and she was open to trying anything.
Sadly, this time period is also when our lives as the grown ups went totally downhill (read about that in my previous articles) when we moved into our big house in need of a lot of work and slid into terribly bad food habits among other terrible non-food-related habits, and took her down with the ship. My focus went away from making healthy meals to feeding us fast and easy or eating out all the time.
She had been so open to quality foods initially but we ruined all of that for her by introducing her to crap food in excess and then wondering why she suddenly didn’t want the healthy food anymore. Just like an adult, a child is susceptible to the addictions that comes from a diet heavy in processed foods and quickly develop a palate that only desires those things. If I ever have another child, I know they’ll never taste that blue box mac and cheese until they’re an adult if I can help it because in retrospect I realize I basically stuck the needle in her arm myself.
My husband and I were very different people when my daughter was a baby. Our focus was everywhere other than where it should’ve been. We were blinded by our drive to meet the expectations of the society and individuals around us, a self-inflicted prison. Our focus was spent on securing and renovating a big house we didn’t need, furnishing and decorating said house and fulfilling our every vice. We were majorly entrenched in consumerism, we would spend a thousand dollars a month on dining out and recreation, the bulk of that of the former. How we did this, I can barely fathom today but it certainly explains why we were so unhealthy and unhappy despite living the life we deemed as a marker of success. But our marriage floundered, our health waned and our happiness went to an all time low. The money didn’t buy us happiness.
If we were bored, tired from working on the house, or if I didn’t feel like cooking, or if we wanted to treat ourselves, or if we had a bad day or a good day or a mediocre day, any number of excuses would lead to takeout or restaurant food three or more times a week. And not high quality, special occasion kind of restaurant food, but diner and chain restaurant fare. Stuff we paid other people to microwave or deep fry for us. We spent many hundreds of dollars a month on outright garbage food. Once our daughter was old enough to eat real food she would get a steaming dish of Mac and cheese and fries placed in front of her and wow, did she love it.
Once she could speak words and had a mind of her own she would place her food orders at home as well and like an idiot I would comply, allowing the 18 month old to dictate her own daily menu which would be: waffles with syrup for breakfast, mac and cheese for lunch and spaghetti for dinner in her perfect world. Because she had adjusted her palate to this and was addicted, if she was presented with anything else it would be a raging, crying until she puked tantrum. I didn’t want to deal with that, so I told myself the things lots of parents tell themselves: she will grow out of it, it’s no big deal, at least she’s eating something, all kids are picky like this.
But as time went on, she became even more rigid with what she would eat. Her meals were reduced to few variations of bread and pasta. It bothered me but I was so entrenched with the misery of my own life I didn’t push the issue. Like a coward, I let her get away with this until she was around three and a half and finally with my own personal awakening beginning, I realized what the hell I was doing to her.
I am acutely, shamefully aware of how much I failed her in this area. I failed to lead by example and I failed to promote her health and wellbeing above her momentary desires. As someone who became obese at age 5 and stayed that way until current date, I cannot believe I ever led her by the hand down the path to poor eating, but I did. I nearly perpetuated the cycle.
Once I began to make all of these changes with my own behavior though, altering my own diet greatly, I couldn’t get past how lousy it made me feel to present her with this garbage food. I realized I was setting her up on the road to obesity, and that it made her a nightmare to take anywhere that didn’t serve the standard American fare because of her food anxiety at anything unfamiliar. It’s awful to be a child and not even be comfortable with the food around you, I remember it for myself because I had the same issues, and I was allowing her to get more entrenched in this rigidity by enabling her just like people did with me.
I realized that this was my creation, my fault as the provider of the food in the household and I threw myself into rectifying her diet alongside ours. At first the blue box pasta was replaced with its organic counterpart, this is still crappy processed food, I was aware but we took baby steps away from the familiar and into healthier territory. Luckily, my daughter did also see our new example as parents and saw us eating healthy, balanced meals. She loves us and wants to emulate us and this helped a great deal. In addition to increasingly healthy versions of her familiar foods, I insisted she try whatever her dad and I were having and created a sticker incentive chart to urge her to participate willingly.
I bought a bunch of cheap toys and wrapped them up to make a grab bag. (I realized this still promotes consumerism, but one thing at a time!) We began with a five day sticker chart, and she would earn a sticker after each dinner if she at least tried every food and ate the healthy things she liked in greater quantity. Dessert was no longer an option unless the healthy food had been consumed, we say “if there isn’t room for ____, there isn’t room for sweets”. She didn’t always nail it, but it got her to be far more adventurous and she discovered some new things she liked along the way and with consistency she adapted to the new expectations with ease.
This wasn’t a quick fix, and the best fixes never are. It took a good amount of time for her to get used to the expectation to try new things and get past her reservations about it. Sometimes she will still try to bail on a dinner and move right to dessert, but at her age it’s her job to attempt to push the boundaries. It’s our job to say no, you can’t. She’s four and a half now and the sticker charts are long gone but the healthy food is still going down the hatch. After about six months of using stickers she was eating most of her meals successfully and for the most part being served the same as the adults were having.
She was getting her prizes with ease and a air of expectation, so I sensed it was time to end the incentives. With my daughter I have learned that when it becomes too easy to get the reward, it’s time to switch the incentive to personal achievement. I told her she had graduated to being an excellent eater and didn’t need a chart anymore and in a celebration ceremony she got to open the whole remainder of prize gifts in one swoop. During this, I explained to her that there would be no more prizes for good eating but that it is her job to continue to do so, and we all must do our jobs in our household because we are a team. The work of resetting her food attitude was done and she was already conditioned to do ‘good eating’ and she gives no fuss over trying nearly anything set in front of her.
Luckily, one thing we never did was condition her to binge eating which my husband and both were raised with. My daughter has an incredible innate ability to regulate her own portions even with sweets because she never lives in fear that they will be taken away. We aren’t clean-plate club members, we don’t require her to finish her whole meal if she was over-served but she knows the requirement is eating healthy food first and then she gets a reasonable portion of ice cream or a cookie or cake. I’ve watched my child throw away 3/4 of a slice of cake she waited all day for because she had had enough! The level of restraint that takes for someone like me who was conditioned to see sweets as ‘naughty’ and therefore coveted, I’m so glad I spared her that mindset in life. That made me beam with pride, we managed to get it right in the regard of quantity despite failing her in the diets composition.
The best part of all of it has been watching her confidence grow, and her sense of pride at pleasing us and being adventurous. She is a lot more interested in helping with food preparation now too and beams with pride when I tell her dad which aspects of the meal she helped with making.
She now proudly proclaims all the time that she is an “eat-anything kid!”
And she sure is. She doesn’t like everything, a lot of vegetables and new, unusual flavors still get the wave but she always gives them a chance. Last nights acorn squash was dismissed after a small taste but that was the first time she had ever even seen one. A year ago, insisting she try it would’ve resulted in hysterical tears. The fact that she tasted it at all makes me really happy. I’m so proud of her, and proud of myself and my husband for turning it around in her life before it had a chance to do damage like it did in ours.
She also now loves some foods that surprise me and husband quite a bit. We love sushi, it’s our favorite by far and we could never go out for it with her because she wanted no part of it, she would always go visit her mema if we were having a sushi date and one day she expressed wanting to come with us. I find new foods are best introduced at home with her, so we got sushi takeout one night and introduced her to it, and she discovered she loves salmon sashimi! I mean, LOVES. She now amazes the waitresses at any sushi joint as she sucks down a platter of it all on her own and will specifically request it often!
After experiencing this journey with her, I can say the best and kindest way to have an ‘eat anything kid’ is to never let the processed foods get its claws into them as a daily option, 100%. A child doesn’t understand nutrition by any scope and hyper-palatable foods are just confusing to them. They don’t know they shouldn’t have it all the time. But if you’ve already gone down that path and want to open their horizons back up to more and better options it can be done, just know that the path back to healthy eating involves incentive, compassion and time. They didn’t become obsessed with the junk in one sitting and one meal won’t reverse it. But a dedicated change in what you provide for them and a focus on their nutrition and emotions and involvement with preparing their own food is all that is needed to fix it over time. Don’t be afraid to educate your child about nutrition from the get go.
I’m so proud of my daughter. And it’s worth noting that she hasn’t requested mac and cheese at home in months, MONTHS. It’s long forgotten. Kids are so wonderfully adaptable, much more so than us adults. Not instantly of course, but with consistency she has learned that we don’t eat that stuff unless we dine out and we now do so rarely. If we eat out at an American food place, which is more like every three months than every three days in our current life, she gets to enjoy her mac and cheese and life goes on. But it’s just not a food we have available at home anymore and she accepts that as the way it is.
The biggest part of encouraging healthy eating in a child, I have learned, is holding onto that accountability. It’s important to remember who should be calling the shots and the big picture at hand. So many people equate food with love, I’ve seen it displayed by every member of my family and my spouses family too. It’s just what people do, but sadly the ‘love food’ is usually junk food, not the healthy stuff. I think it’s so important that we stop this and teach our children that food is just a means to nutrition, it can be enjoyable but it shouldn’t be used for recreation, it shouldn’t be ice cream getting snuck by the grandparents with a ‘don’t tell mommy’. This instills an unhealthy relationship with the food from such an early age.
I love my daughter with my whole heart and she has been my inspiration behind the entire life overhaul I’ve taken on. I’m committed to giving her the best mother and best life possible and building her values on a strong foundation of self respect and kindness to others. Food is not the biggest aspect of life but it is the life-blood of our health and we need to treat it accordingly. If you’re on the path to health for yourself, be sure to take your children by the hand and bring them with you. It’s the best gift you can give them.