My son was almost 3 years when a well-meaning person offered him his first chocolate biscuit. Till then I had carefully managed to avoid any junk from escaping down my kid’s throat. No processed sugar, no maida… nothing that came out of a plastic packet with an MRP. That first crunch of the biscuit shattered my heart. And the way his eyes lit up at the taste dimmed my own joy. He proceeded to eat his way through most of the packet. His realisation that such food existed made him reject the simpler food he was used to. Were his days of healthy eating over? Nope. Not on my watch!
It’s tough to establish healthy habits in your kids when there is a whole world of temptingly delicious treats out there. It seems almost like fighting a losing battle. But it isn’t. It takes careful strategy, planning and patience to win the war against junk food. I finally emerged victorious when one day, my son turned to me and said, “I’m hungry, do we have anything healthy to eat.” True story!
10 Tips to make kids eat healthy & avoid junk food
So roll up your sleeves and prevent your little ones from turning into mindless junk food lovers, and instead evolve into more thoughtful, aware eaters. I’m not going to lie, it’s a long journey. But good things come to people who persist.
1. Give your child a lesson in healthy eating 101
You want your little one to eat her veggies? Tell her why. A simple understanding of basic biology is enough to convert many kids to eat better. Help them understand why some food gives them strength while others sap their energy. When they are running around, remind them that the khichdi they ate at lunch is doing its job well. When your child learns about food groups in school, you can look inside your kitchen and break down each item into the group they belong to. Once my son understood the purpose of each food on his plate, it was like a lightbulb went off in his brain.
You can also take them grocery shopping. Let them pick the fruits and vegetables. My kid was so thrilled with his choices, he immediately comes home and asks if he can munch on the carrot carefully chosen by him?
2. Substitute or upgrade
Does the sight of store-bought, maida biscuits or the nutrient-bereft Maggi noodles give you an ulcer? I feel your pain. However, there are healthier counterparts available for every junk item your child demands. Want pasta? Stroll down the grocery store aisle and pick the whole wheat, organic varieties, or make spaghetti from vegetables. Even better, make Opt for better variants of cheese like gruyere or mozzarella for the sauce and load up on the veggies. Voila! it tastes better and has more nutrients that the pre-made mush in a packet.
Your child is wailing for biscuits? Opt for products that use intelligent, wholesome ingredients like jowar, coconut, jaggery and almonds. There is a revolution happening. As more parents are growing aware of the perils of preservative-laden packed foods, more conscious brands are emerging. Just tap in your favourite search engine and find home bakers or brands which make items in their kitchens.
Alternatively, you could make your child’s favourite treats at home.
3. Make. Eat. Repeat.
The kitchen isn’t a mystical place where food magically appears. If that’s what you’re child thinks, get him to experience the joy of cooking first hand. There is no such thing as ‘too early to teach your child’ when it comes to rolling out rotis or peel potatoes. It amazes them to watch a bunch of ingredients cook to completion on the stove. Also, baking cookies, cutting fruits, rolling roti rolls together at home can be a fun activity and give you control over the quantity and quality of raw ingredients. You can also try an easy, fuss-free jam recipe at home.
When my son and I baked coconut and almond cookies with jaggery, they didn’t taste as sweet as packaged ones. However, my son was so proud of his efforts, that he found them delicious.
4. Let your child choose (from your picks)
When my son asks for a snack, I offer him three choices. Say, for instance, carrot sticks, jaggery channa or organic makhana. See what I did there? I allowed him some control over his snack-making decisions, but yet I called all the shots. Now, I only offer food I would like to see travel down his throat. I base my choices on the food he likes, and occasionally throw one option in that he hasn’t tried before. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
5. Kids do as we do, and not as we say
It’s a bit unfair to gorge on fried potato chips while coaxing your kid to eat his veggies. If your son sees you wolf down a plate of something deep-fried, chances are he is going to want his turn too. So what’s the solution? Don’t keep any junk food in your home. When out shopping, sprint past the junk food sections quickly without stopping. Stay clean, don’t give in to temptation (or invite it into your home), and your kids will follow suit.
Even if you are strapped for time, there are enough easy snack options to offer your child. Like:
- Roasted makhana
- Hummus on toast
- Boiled peanuts
- Mix fruit salad
- Roti roll with Homemade peanut butter
- Dry fruits
6. Never force or nag
I don’t like capsicum. I find it abhorrent. So when my son pleads with me to not eat cabbage, I agree. It’s only fair. We all have that one dreaded food item we struggle to swallow no matter how high the health benefits. So allow your kids the same courtesy. No one likes every single fruit or vegetable. It’s okay if your kids have one or two items on the no-eat list. Nagging them to eat something they truly don’t like won’t help anyone.
7. The occasional treat won’t hurt anyone
There will always be a birthday party where junk food reigns supreme. Or an outing that is accompanied by a decadent amount of cookies or a big bowl of ice-cream. That’s fine. You would probably have to live on top of a very high mountain to get your kids to stay away from junk food completely.
Over time, your child learns to wait for these occasional treats. Banning every unhealthy food item every time isn’t the answer. Restricting and reducing consumption is. As long as they eat healthy most of the time, allow a little indulgence.
Discipline but don’t be overly strict. And your kid may surprise you by politely refusing the ‘good looking treats’ too.
8. Superheroes eat healthy too
If your child adores any cartoon character or a superhero, use them as poster people for healthy eating. During meal times, I would narrate stories of how Thor got so strong because he loved to eat broccoli, or how the Paw Patrol brigade are clever because they are good eaters. Of course, your child won’t fall in love with broccoli on the spot. But the idea that strength and health are rooted in home-cooked food will take root.
Give it time. Your kid won’t pick up healthy eating overnight. Over time, little by little, things will change. Lifelong habits take time to form, but once they do, they are permanently cemented.
10. Say no to others
As parents, we have the final say in what goes into our kids. There will always be an overzealous aunty with a large bar of Dairy Milk chocolate lurking around the corner. Or an overindulgent grandparent with a giant packet of chips. You have the right to deny them. If you don’t want to appear impolite, take the junk item and say you’ll give it later. They’ll never know.
If these tricks do not work, you can always use your paediatrician as the shield. Say a doctor has asked not to give these treats to the child. Say it plainly with a shy smile. Almost always, this trick works! And almost always your doctor will discourage giving unhealthy treats to kids (to not make it a white lie, just ask your paediatrician :-)).
If you want your child to grow up into a healthy adult who doesn’t store a pile of empty biscuit wrappers under the bed, start now. What children eat in their formative years is crucial to how their body shapes up in the later years. Use these tips to help your child engage in a healthy lifestyle for the rest of his life.