Before I go any further than the title, let me be clear: my son, like many other little kids, loves his treats and sweets. And he doesn’t look at a salad and think “I’ve been wanting that all day! Thanks, Mommy!”
He doesn’t think vegetables and healthy meals are strange foreign foods to wage war over, either. He pushes back from time to time, LIKE KIDS DO, but ultimately he eats what I prepare, even if it’s just a few bites.
I have a few theories as to why I feel I’ve been successful in raising a kid who is accustomed to healthy food.
1.) HE IS ACCUSTOMED TO HEALTHY FOOD.
Seriously, folks. If a kid is not used to seeing or being offered healthy foods, he is not going to one day pass on the chicken nuggets and request a salad. From the moment I
found out I was pregnant, got over the morning sickness, I ate a plethora of nutrient dense foods. Amniotic fluid takes on the flavor of what pregnant moms eat, and children get used to those flavors. They then taste what you are eating through breastmilk if you’re nursing, and continue to develop their palate. This may be one reason that formula-fed children wind up being more “picky” later, as they haven’t gotten a diverse assortment of flavors until solid foods begin. This all very much intertwines with my second theory as to how my child doesn’t quizzically look at vegetables…
2.) BABY-LED WEANING
You may have heard of this. If you haven’t, pay attention. This is the method of not making purees for your kids. Instead, you offer easy to grab and chew versions of grown-up foods. In the BLW protocol, you wait until your child shows an interest in adult food. They try to grab it, and salivate or start imitating your chewing motions. This is generally around 6 months, and BLW does not recommend starting earlier. I tend to agree, and breast-fed exclusively for 6 months. My son’s first food was lentil soup.
There were a few big takeaways for BLW that really clicked for me. One, was learning that the gag reflex in infants starts much closer to the tip of their tongue, and gradually moves back towards the throat as kids age. This helps them learn how to manipulate food in their mouth, with less risk of actual choking. In BLW, you don’t offer pureed everything, you offer chunks of real food. This manipulation of food strengthens their mouth muscles, preparing them to learn how to chew. If they gag, they aren’t actually choking, because the reflex helps them learn how to move the food up closer to the front of their mouth. So a child learns how to mash foods (softened through steaming or slow cooking, or naturally soft foods) with their gums, and swallow second. With purees, learning how to chew is bypassed. Straight to the swallowing. This means that true choking is a greater risk when children are typically offered solid foods around 12 months, and the gag reflex has moved further back.
The other thing I love about BLW is that kids are able to get used to seeing REAL FOOD. Chicken looks like chicken. Not just another spoonful of mush from a jar to possibly be confused with applesauce. From 6 months old, we would dole out food directly from the stove or slow cooker, onto our son’s plate and ours. He would see that we were all eating the same thing, and kids WANT to eat what their parents are eating. We’d let him eat with his hands and he’d shovel little piles of slow cooked chicken and veggies into his mouth. It is a messy process, but it’s adorable, and kids love feeling like they can be in control of things.
I also would serve a salad almost every day. Even at 8 months old. I would sometimes mince it up a bit more for him so he wouldn’t try to swallow whole romaine leaves, but sometimes I’d just let him suck on a leaf, too. He knows that salads and a variety of vegetable-based dishes are part of our family’s food culture. He’s seen these foods, mouthed them, and eaten them since he was 6 months old. Even when he’d show a distaste for certain things, I’d continue to keep them in our rotation because it can take many, many attempts for a kid to “acquire a taste”.
This always makes me think about cultures that have very different foods than the processed Westernized world. I don’t imagine that a Japanese baby grows up despising fish, and asking for grilled cheese with ketchup all the time. There are some things that far Eastern countries are used to eating that we’d find pretty disgusting. Same with rural or especially tribal communities in South America or Africa. Those babies grow up eating what their parents culturally eat. They don’t have any other option. I tried to think like that with my son. What did I want his food culture to look like?
I knew we were on to something when we got many stares and comments from fellow restaurant patrons when we’d go out. 9 out of 10 times, somebody would say something to us about their shock at seeing a young child eat vegetables. We would order him food from the adult menu, or give him things off our plates usually. He’d even push away offers of bread or starchy things like potatoes. To this day, he has not had a chicken nugget.
After his second birthday, it got a LITTLE more difficult to maintain this level of control, and he now eats SLIGHTLY more like a typical, cupcake-begging kid, but that really is only because my mother can’t help herself, and we are now in the era of little kids’ birthday parties and snack sharing circles. And I don’t always want my son to feel like THAT kid. But when it won’t dramatically single him out, I will pack a Caitlin approved snack or meal for him when I am confident that large group offerings are going to be largely processed junk food. It goes unnoticed that he’s eating an almond butter, chia seed and honey sandwich. He doesn’t seem to mind!
Up until 2+, however, I found it extremely easy to keep up with 100% super healthy options, because he knew nothing else, and therefore didn’t beg for what he didn’t know existed. His first birthday cake was made out of oats, bananas, and cashew frosting, and for his second I made him chocolate Paleo cupcakes. He loved it all the same!
I think it’s easy to throw in the towel, these days. Parenting is exhausting. I throw in the towel in other aspects, but making sure my kiddo keeps up his exposure to healthy foods is not one of them. He helps me make smoothies…with our homemade cashew milk and things like bee pollen (he even puts in “salad” , aka a handful of greens I may be using). When he’s hungry, and all I’ve packed is a salad for us to eat at the zoo, he eats it. I don’t concede to the concession stand’s hot dogs and french fries, and since he’s never had them there, it’s not in his “food culture” to beg for it.
I sometimes, (well often times, now that he thinks dessert is a daily rite) resort to bribery if I have to. “You eat 3 more bites of your XYZ veggies” and you can have half a banana for dessert.
Because, in his culture, mashed banana with cinnamon and almond butter is dessert, so I don’t feel totally bad about it.
Do you have healthy eaters? Luck of the draw or calculated planning? What has worked for you?