Encouraging Our Kids to Eat Healthy

The finicky eating habits of children have perplexed parents ever since that first cave baby spit out his fire-roasted wooly mammoth. But in this age of so many allergies, hyper-sensitive diets, and laundry list of free options, the struggle is all the more real.

Amy Isabella Chalker wants to help. Best known locally for running the Isabella Gourmet Grocery on Figueroa Street for many years, Chalker is now a registered dietician and nutritionist. Starting on October 12, she and Krista Tarantino are hosting a five-part webinar series called Talking with Their Mouths Full that will address feeding struggles in the home and other childcare environments. The online workshop, held Saturdays from 10 to 11 a.m. via Zoom video, aims to help parents and caregivers feed children in emotionally and behaviorally healthy ways while also fostering stronger family relationships.

She explains the series a bit more for us below.

What are some strategies for developing more varied diets in kids?  As an adult, have you ever enjoyed being told precisely what and how much to eat? Kids don’t enjoy it either! In fact, it can set up a lifelong struggle with food that persists well into adulthood and manifests in myriad ways, including potential disordered eating behaviors.

As parents and caregivers, your best role is to provide comprehensive, varied, and consistent meals that include protein, fat, carbohydrates (veggies too!), and some sweets, and let children become acquainted with these foods at their own pace. Studies have shown that consistent introduction of foods that children initially dismiss often ultimately become part of their eating repertoire if they are not pressured (or tricked, manipulated, or cajoled) into eating specific foods, and instead consistently presented with foods they both enjoy and those they do not initially favor.

Body image is something my 7-year-old daughter is already concerned about. How do we encourage kids to eat healthy but also to eat enough?  It is not a child’s job to be responsible for their nutritional well-being; that is the job of parents and caregivers. It is a child’s job to focus on play, school, and friends, with the knowledge that adult modeling of appropriate food behaviors will serve as eating templates as children age.

We’re fortunate enough to have access to daily farmers’ markets, family-run farms, and, in some cases, our own home gardens to teach children where food comes from and how interconnected our food web truly is. These sorts of educational activities are age-appropriate ways to engage children in the content of their meals. Using fear-based “good food/bad food” tactics is not recommended, nor effective.

My kids will eat dinner and then, less than an hour later, they’re snacking again. Is that normal? As a kid myself, I recall eating dinner once and then that was it.  When children are given the opportunity to tune in to their hunger and satiety cues (an ability we are all inherently born with), they will eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full, as long as they are presented with well-rounded meals that include a variety of foods, including protein, fat, carbohydrates, and sweet components. If something is disrupting their natural ability to regulate their hunger and fullness (like fat-free products, skimping on oils and butters, or forbidding the consumption of so-called “bad foods” that children eat), children may lose track of their own cues and eat “mindlessly” when given the opportunity, without regard for true hunger and fullness. These behaviors have the potential to continue into adulthood if not addressed.

What do you hope parents will gain from attending your classes?  My hope is that parents will recognize that many of their own beliefs, emotions, and behaviors surrounding foods are consciously and unconsciously passed along to children and that bringing these to the surface and addressing them directly will positively impact a child’s relationship with food and body for the rest of their lives.