It is never too early to teach your children the benefits of healthy foods.

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We are currently waged in a full-force battle for our children’s lives, and it starts the second they take their first bite. One of the primary responsibilities of parenting is to provide children the tools for optimal health. In this country of convenience, meals-on-the-go have become the norm, and we’ve let our kids decide their diet based on commercials for high-sugar, low-nutrient foods. One in three children will be a diabetic adult. Perhaps more sobering, for the first time in history, our children will not live as long as the generation before them. 

The time is upon you to start making nutritional decisions for your kids. It’s never too early to teach them the ABCs of beneficial foods, and the harmful short- and long-term effects of eating poorly.

Use these guidelines to improve your family’s nutrition. Your children will thank you for the lifelong gift of health and a strong nutritional foundation can turn into a legacy.

Doctor’s Orders:

  • Walk the walk. Your children are going to eat what you eat. Simple as that. Kids want to emulate their parents and nutrition is no exception. As the adult, you have to practice what you preach. You can’t expect them to ask for water when you’re slurping down a soda. Learn the principles of optimal health posted throughout PureHealthMD, and apply them to your daily habits.
  • Start a garden. This can be a very healthy family bonding project. Each child should be allowed to pick something to grow and given responsibilities for the care of the garden. Start small and learn as you go. Your child will attain lifelong lessons about sustainability and organic foods and, most importantly, they will want to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.
  • Involve them in food preparation. Children that peel carrots or cut broccoli will want to eat what they helped prepare. They yearn to be a part of everything you do, so why not dinner? If they are younger and not ready for sharp utensils, let them stir the oatmeal or flip the pancakes with your help.
  • Feed them like little adults. There is no reason why a child should not eat what you are eating. Try to limit separate meals or giving options to appease them. After all, you aren’t a short-order cook. If you’re eating stir-fry tonight, that’s what’s on the menu for everyone. This rule holds particularly true with eating out. Usually, the children’s menu is a line-up of the most highly processed, unhealthy foods imaginable, and should be for coloring, not ordering. Feed your child like an adult. Order a grilled chicken breast with a side of steamed vegetables. Ask the waiter to bring them a half order, or better yet share one entree.
  • Cleanse the pantry. Go through the cupboard and rid your home of all products listing high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oil as ingredients. These lead the charge of contributors to the childhood obesity epidemic. Throw out those products with more than four or five ingredients. Instead, load up on unsalted and unsweetened nuts, dried fruit, or combine these to make trail mix.
  • Redefine snacks. There is no reason for a child to expect candy, cookies or chips on a daily basis. From now on, snacks are pieces of fresh fruit, cut up vegetables or a cup of oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts. Let your child know what is healthy and what is not. Inform them. They should eventually grasp the idea that sugary snacks will lead to weight gain, acne, fatigue, poor concentration and rotting teeth. Teach them the value of fresh produce and water, and that there are no other options. Over time they will accept, and even ask for, the new and improved snacks.
  • Drink water. Children need to learn to drink and appreciate water. Time and again, we hear, “I can’t stand the taste of water.” It’s water—it has no taste. For a child, this idea is often adopted from the parent, so let them see you drinking water, lots of it. Don’t flavor it, don’t color it. Let your child know there is no other option. Sports drinks are a dangerous substitute, as they have high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener, which a child’s body does not handle well. What’s worse, they are drinking these while being active, which means their mouths are dry and the natural saliva that protects the teeth is not there. The syrup has direct access to the tooth, promoting decay and harmful bacteria.
  • Make the decisions. When it comes to the day-to-day dangers and decisions, parents are aware that a child doesn’t know what’s best for them. Nutrition is no exception. Don’t allow them to refuse healthy offerings and hold out for cheap sources of calories. Give them a loaded choice, “Will it be broccoli, cauliflower or brussels sprout tonight honey?” Don’t budge. When you serve healthy foods, and they’re used to unhealthy options, it can be a struggle. Stick to your guns. Let them know that they don’t have to eat now, but later when they are hungry they can have the original food reheated. A child will never let themselves starve.
  • Eat together. Around the family table, there are more than nutritional benefits. Statistically, there is less drug use, high risk sexual activity and better parental communication in children who sit down to meals with their family. Make sure at least half of all meals are eaten together. If you’re on the go, schedule time to pull over or have a picnic together. Eating in the car does not count. The focus must be on nothing but eating good food and being together. To prevent interruption, turn off the technology.
  • Make a rule. The rule of the house should be, “If you’ve never tried it, you are not allowed to say you don’t like it.” Certainly there are foods that they won’t like. It happens. But once the initial hesitation passes, the whole clan might be surprised.
  • Experiment. While peas, carrots and corn hold nutritional value, they shouldn’t be the only sources of vegetables your child eats. Every vegetable has different essential nutrients. Start by trying to incorporate every color, daily. Try some wild and random vegetables that you usually pass at the grocery. Make it fun by looking up preparation ideas online and have a family vote on how it’s prepared. Better yet, prepare it two or three different ways and have a family taste test.
  • The advanced class. Once you’ve introduced more sound nutritional principles to the table, start to consider making the organic movement. So much of our produce is laced with pesticides and herbicides that are not only directly harmful to your child, but by protecting the growing plant, they are usually less nutritious. Go to www.foodnews.org to learn what fruits and vegetables are most affected by these chemicals. Buying organic of those items in the “clean dozen” can be a lower priority.