With the myriad of commercials touting unhealthy foods as snacks any child would be lucky to get their hands on, it can be difficult to convince children that fruit and vegetables do in fact taste good. But that doesn’t mean you should surrender to stomping feet and the decorative packaging that won’t lead to a heart healthy life.
Here are four ways to teach your children healthy eating habits – without forcing it upon them.
1. Make things fun
Instead of serving a simple stack of veggies for an afterschool snack, make healthy eating fun. Bridget Swinney, a registered dietitian who taught weight loss classes for the American Heart Association, suggests thinking like a kid yourself. “Too often adults get wrapped up in the serious business of getting a healthy meal on the table and forget that food can be fun,” she says. “A fond memory for me is when my son and his friend made green smoothies—they put everything you could think of in it! Let kids experiment with the idea that nothing is off limits as long as it’s safe.”
Whether adding food color to dips or cutting sandwiches into shapes, there are plenty of ways to make snacking far from boring. (For ideas, check out Go Red’s We Heart Kids Pinterest board).
2. Create healthy versions of unhealthy treats
If your child is begging for chips, try baking them. “A great way to make your own tortilla chips is to cut whole wheat or corn tortillas into triangles or other fun shapes, with scissors,” says Swinney. “Brush with olive oil and herbs or cinnamon sugar and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until crisp.”
You can also apply this trick to baked goods. “There are great ways to cut the fat in things like cookies, pies and cakes by using applesauce, pureed plums and mashed avocado,” says Swinney. If you’re willing to do a little research, you’re bound to find healthy alternatives to store-bought goodies.
3. Have healthy options on hand
As a busy mother, you’re often grabbing snacks while running out the door, making prepackaged treats an easy option. These snacks, however, tend to have excess sugar and sodium. A better option is keeping containers of heart-healthy options on hand. Swinney suggests “whole grain crackers and string cheese, hummus dip and baby carrots, Greek yogurt with apple slices, nuts and dried fruit or nut butter with a banana.” Preparing those snacks isn’t as time efficient as grabbing a granola bar, but the extra effort is well worth it. “All those are balanced snacks, which have protein for staying power, yet are not too heavy as to spoil the appetite,” says Swinney.
4. Moderation is key
A diet that includes deprivation doesn’t work. And the last thing you want is your child trading their carrots for candy at lunch, or going on a junk food binge at a sleepover. The more you say no, they more they’ll want what they can have. A good alternative? Providing the best of both worlds. “I always like to mix a splurge with something healthy, like an ice cream sundae with lots of fresh berries, or fresh fruit dipped in dark chocolate sauce,” says Swinney. “Dark chocolate and natural cocoa are rich in antioxidants that may help the health of blood vessels, so you can feel good about splurging with them!”
Sometimes it’s important to just say yes and let your children live a little. “Kids need to learn how to handle things like chips, soda, candy and other junk food because it will cross their paths. Teach them that those foods are ‘slow’ foods—they don’t help you grow, so eat them in small amounts and not very often,” says Swinney.
Tara Fuller is an NYC-based health and fitness writer. When not running for charity, training for races or blogging about the latest nutrition news, she is writing for Greatist, Go Red and other online publications.