I recently had a friend ask me how our eight-year-old child became such a great eater, and how she could help her one-year-old along that path as well.
It took me a minute to rewind and recall where it all started. After racking my brain for a minute, I told her the greatest tip I can give to parents who seek to have their children eat a well-balanced diet, which is, “Involve your child in all aspects of their eating journey.”
Here I’ll explain what mindful eating has meant for our family.
After growing up with a number of health issues as a child that I believe were food-related, I began my search for a more healthy, conscious way of eating when I became pregnant with our child. I was working on an organic, hydroponic, micro-greens farm in Florida at the time, and had learned that the farm owner was collaborating with local doctors to help diabetic patients heal through food. The farmer began this work when his own mother was diagnosed with cancer and he learned of the benefits of an organic, raw diet of micro-greens for cancer patients, as the nutrient-dense foods could help them heal at a cellular level.
The combination of these things inspired me, for the first time, to look at the food that was readily available to me—foods that were both in season and locally grown. I quickly realized how little my diet consisted of nutrient-rich foods grown in my state or country, and that I had never before in my life been remotely aware of where my food came from, how it was produced, or how it affected the planet. I started actually caring and reading labels more; I wanted to become a conscious consumer.
After our child was born, we moved to Santa Cruz, California where we had easy access to lots of locally grown food, year-round. We biked to farmers’ markets twice weekly for organic produce and for the community we found there. Much of the town would come out and play music, dance, sing, have drum circles, and watch circus performers. There, I bonded with friends who worked on farms or grew food at home, and learned a lot more about conscious consumption in general. We used our car less, biked more, and hiked in Redwood forests often. We became more deeply connected to the earth and were reminded that we were stewards of the land with an interest in cultivating food, health, wellness—and in teaching our child to as well. At age 28, I grew my first herb garden, saw my first carrots with green tops still attached, and ate kale for the first time ever. We’ve raised our daughter on these foods since age one.
I started to get excited about making up recipes and cooking a lot more. There was so much to learn about real, whole food and sustainable living, and I was ready to dig in.
Fast forward to now, and you’d meet our eight-year-old daughter who loves everything about food and to discuss sustainability with us. She loves to plant seeds, grow, harvest ,and prepare food, create recipes and cooking videos, watch food documentaries, read foodie books—and most of all, she loves to eat! She has always loved eating from the time she was born, and I think some of that stems from us always giving her what we ate, which kept it new and exciting for her with a wide variety of flavors and spices. By age five, our child had eaten food from over 20 different countries and liked it all. We never catered to her “being a kid” or needing specialized kids’ menus, so now she’s just used to eating “adult” food.
I also think it’s because we take interest in sharing with her all of the knowledge that we’ve gained about food and health over the years.
Through foraging, gardening, cooking, juicing, and making smoothies together, we’ve fostered in her an appreciation for the amount of time, effort, and energy that goes into producing the food that we may easily take for granted when we buy it at the store, as well as an understanding of why we don’t waste food. We keep an open conversation going at home about food and how various diets work for others and ourselves, based on our growing knowledge and our own firsthand experiences experimenting with our nutrition. I’m thankful that my daughter has been able to avoid any childhood health issues, in large part due to the amount of nutritious, plant-based foods that she eats.
I hope that these tips may be helpful along your journey with your family’s eating habits; they have been for mine.
Tips for Raising Non-Picky Eaters.
1. Involve your child in all aspects of their eating journey.
This helps encourage a healthy relationship with food. Let them grow, harvest, cook, visit farms, or see how and where food is produced. This also gives them the wisdom to make conscious decisions, based on facts, about what they consume as they grow older (for instance, if they choose to go vegan or adopt another diet pattern). Starting around age four or five, allow them to actively contribute to meal planning, letting them have a say in ideas for next week’s meals (and then tweaking the menu so that it makes sense nutritionally).
Giving our child the facts about where food comes from and letting her determine how she felt about eating animal products has helped her to make consistently healthy food choices. This path takes time and intentional effort, and no family or diet is perfect. There’s always more to learn.
2. Give kids a chance to try everything that you eat.
Don’t make specialized food for them or cater to each wail and whine, as doing this may lead them to grow to expect this consistently. They’re small humans, and they may like the same things adults do if given the opportunity—it just takes testing their tastebuds. Branch out and try food of varied ethnicities. Even if you think they won’t like it or haven’t liked it before, it doesn’t mean they never will.
I know, I know, they need to eat, so at times, it seems anything will do if it gets them some calories. But make an effort to offer them nutrient-rich whole foods, like fruit or veggies, which have proteins and minerals that their growing bodies need, even if it’s not a full meal. There is no need to be making three separate dishes each meal for different family members. As buyer and chef, you set the standards, not them.
3. Try again.
If they didn’t like it once, twice, or even three times, remember that there are myriad ways to prepare and cook a single ingredient. Be creative, try some variety, combining something they don’t like with something they love, or using different spices or textures and perhaps they’ll see that it can be good in a different recipe—or put it in a smoothie and tell them later, so they’ll see that it’s not so bad! A couple leaves of spinach go unnoticed in a sweet berry smoothie. Canned pumpkin can easily be added to mac n’ cheese.
4. Don’t engage in negative reinforcement.
If they really don’t like something that you love, let it go—but do not keep repeating out loud, “He/She doesn’t like this,” or “He/She is so picky.” I once had a friend of my child’s come over for a playdate and tell me, “I am a verrry picky eater.” And I replied, “Yes, your mother told me so.” Parents reiterating a negative or unwanted behavior or characteristic only solidifies it further in the child’s mind, so that they identify with it and come to perceive themselves as only that—and unchangeably so. I have known many a grown man to only eat foods that are on the standard American kids’ menu, and their families who’ve continued to cater to this nutrition-lacking diet.
5. Eat mindfully.
This means that while you eat, don’t read, drive, watch TV, use iPads, or scroll on your phone. Instead, focus on just the food, appreciating its value, quality, flavor, color, texture, the people at the table with you, your surroundings. Slow down to breathe between bites, as the breath is an important part of digestion and allows the body to relax and utilize nutrients to their utmost benefit.
6. Discuss food and ask what they like or dislike about certain foods.
Nutritive eating is a holistic journey and can be treated as such. There are so many aspects to share: from family bonding time, to growing foods and connecting with the earth and community, to eating socially with friends, to passing down family recipes and cooking techniques that have been carried on for generations. Revisiting these aspects with our kids can help the whole family gain a healthier, stronger relationship with the process. Teach them that caring for our minds and bodies—growing strong and smart—comes from eating nutritious food.
7. Practice gratitude.
A fun thing we do to add gratitude to our meals is to take turns listing all of the people and parts of nature that were involved in getting this food to us, such as farmers, packagers, drivers, grocers, clouds, rain, sun, soil, wind, bees, worms, truck-manufacturers, gas station workers, airplane crews, shipping departments, cargo ship crews, producers of shipping crates, box companies, irrigation equipment companies, mom, dad…you get the drift. It takes so many people and so much work for us to get the food that we eat daily and often we give this very little thought. Take time to notice and your kids may as well.
8. Allow natural flavors to shine through.
Nourishing, whole food is naturally tasteful and appealing to all five senses—it’s bright, crunchy, smooth, sweet, and more. By enhancing flavor simply and naturally, we find that its inherent qualities blossom, and even finicky children (gasp!) will enjoy it.
But there is a major difference between whole food and all of the over-processed, packaged, chemically preserved, artificially colored, scientifically modified and enhanced, so-called “foods” which have taken over market shelves in the last 50 years. Diet trends and novelty items come and go, but whole, naturally grown food will always nourish our health and help our kids to thrive and it’s easier to get them on this path if they start young.
Here’s an example of one lunch that our girl took to school: one large carrot, one small apple, one date, sauerkraut, cauliflower, cucumber, hummus, half of a purple sweet potato, a handful of cashews, three roasted seaweed snacks, vegan yogurt made with almond milk, and water.
I’ll close with one final anecdote that I believe drives home the importance of teaching mindful eating to our young children.
Recently, while picking blueberries at a beautiful farm in Vermont, my daughter commented on hearing a family nearby. A mother had been picking for about three minutes and her daughter and son were not helping. Her daughter asked, “Mom, can we just buy them at a store?” Mom replied, “Yes, this is taking too long and I’m not finding many, there isn’t much left here.” Later, my daughter said to me, “They hardly tried, now they’re just going to buy them at a store after they came all the way here.” I explained that it is, of course, easier to buy things at the store like we do most of the time, but then we’d miss out on the experience and family time out here on this gorgeous mountain with the warm sun on our cheeks, birds singing, butterflies fluttering by, and cool breeze in our hair. After two leisurely hours of picking, we left the farm with a tan and four pounds of berries to freeze for waffles and smoothies.
This farm trip led to a great family discussion about how our modern culture often suffers from stress and feeling a lack of time. With our busy, overflowing schedules and quick distractions or conveniences, we end up feeling more impatient and less able to slow down and take time to enjoy our days, our loved ones, and our food.
Our choice to keep rushing through life or to slow down and savor the moment sets an example for our children, and can make a huge difference in the levels of stress and overall health that become habitual throughout their lives. Eating fast meals or not sitting down with our families to eat and connect each day creates a greater gap between us, and hampers our children’s ability to learn the importance of appreciating the benefits of mindfully prepared, nutritious food.
Author: Tina Picz-Devoe
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman