Changing your own diet is hard work. Changing your children’s diet is even harder. Toddlers and young children like to stick to what is familiar, and even if they are not fussy eaters you cannot change their eating habits all at once. Gradual change is best. Just start from wherever you are and change things slowly. Be prepared for a certain amount of resistance, depending on your child’s personality. Here are some tips that I have found helpful:
Start by reducing the amount of processed foods you eat. Let things run out as you use them up, and then replace them with a better alternative. For example, my 4 year old was in the habit of eating sugary cereal for breakfast every day, even though she likes healthier options like porridge made with full fat milk or scrambled eggs. So I let her use the cereal up over time, and then I just said ‘Oh, we’ve run out of cereal, would you like eggs instead?’. Then I would say that I had ‘forgotten’ to buy any cereal. She did cotton onto this, but by then she was used to eating different things for breakfast, so when I finally explained to her that we wouldn’t be buying her favourite cereal any more, it wasn’t quite as devastating a blow for her. I used the same approach to phase out processed cheese snacks and biscuits, among other things.
Find transition foods that are acceptable to you, and also acceptable to your child. For example, fruit rollups instead of sweets, or gluten free pasta instead of normal pasta. Make homemade treats so that they don’t feel deprived or left out. Snacks can be tricky, especially if you’re reliant on pre-packaged snacks like we were, after all they take zero preparation time and you can sling them in your bag and forget about them, ready for an emergency snack attack. Fresh or dried fruit is now our go-to snack. My girls both also like spicy salami snacks, which are not perfect as they contain some not-great ingredients like MSG, but I’ve decided that it’s acceptable as a compromise. Dried fruit bars like Nakd bars (choco orange is our favourite) or Organix date and banana bars (for younger ones) are really handy to keep in your handbag or for a special treat.
Accept that you may have to be a short order cook for a while. Depending on your house rules and how adventurous your child is with food, you may have to make more than one meal some days, or make extra side dishes. I try to have one thing that everyone likes on the table at every meal, so that meals don’t become a battle. My eldest daughter eats a wide range of foods but is extremely resistant to trying new foods, so in the beginning I just want her to see me eating new foods with enthusiasm. I don’t expect her to eat them herself for quite some time. If we’re having something I know she doesn’t like I will put out some gluten-free bread and butter, crudites, or even just fruit on the side. I’ve also discovered that she prefers some vegetables raw (like carrots) so I just prepare these separately for her if we’re having them for dinner.
Give your children some control. Take them shopping and allow them to choose some fruit and vegetables. You might be pleasantly surprised. Last week we went to the farm shop and my daughter asked for chantenay carrots, strawberries and Nakd bars. Include them in the cooking process too. Children can ‘help’ from a very young age with things like washing vegetables, and as they get older they can take on more difficult tasks such as peeling onions, measuring ingredients, chopping soft fruit (with a table knife) and so on.
Grow your own vegetables and fruit. We used to grow spinach on our old allotment which my eldest would pick and eat raw. She also loves baby carrots ever since we grew some in pots in our garden last year. If you have space, it’s good to grow a mixture of things that they already love, and things that you want them to try. Not to mention the benefits to your wellbeing just by simply being outside in nature.
I think it’s important to respect your child’s feelings as part of this process (as in all things), so let them guide how quickly you make these changes. Sometimes you may feel things are moving painfully slowly, and it can be frustrating, but that’s ok because things are going in the right direction. Making the changes gradually makes it easier to stick to them in the long term. At the same time teach your child about your new way of eating, in a way that they can understand, and give them plenty of opportunities to express their feelings about it. It is hard work but teaching them about healthy eating now will set them up for life and prevent many health conditions later on.
Is anyone else transitioning their family to a real food diet? What challenges have you faced along the way?