By: Yami Cazorla-Lancaster, DO, MPH, MS, FAAP
Feeding our kids can be both incredibly fun and terrifically stressful. Knowing what to feed our children can be confusing and wrought with anxiety. As a pediatrician and health and wellness coach, I spend much of my time counseling parents and clients on food and eating. I find that many parents want to feed their children with a health-promoting diet but feel insecure about their choices or methods. Most parents worry that their children are too picky, don’t eat enough vegetables and don’t get enough protein. But it really doesn’t have to be so complicated! Feeding your children can be relaxed and straightforward. To help guide you, I created the Five Pillars of Healthy Eating.
When I created The Five Pillars of Healthy Eating, I had three goals in mind:
1. Promote health and wellbeing - Wellbeing means being in a state of health and happiness. We can achieve wellbeing when we are physically and emotionally healthy.
2. Decrease the risk of chronic disease and support longevity - Through our nutrition and lifestyle choices, we can prevent 80-90% of chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Quality of life and healthy lifespan are significantly increased with healthy habits.
3. Foster confidence – Those that have confidence in their bodies and eating choices are more likely to sustain healthy lifestyle habits.
The Five Pillars of Healthy Eating serve as a blueprint for how to approach food and eating in this modern world. It nudges us into healthy habits and behaviors that are both pleasurable and sustainable while also promoting wellbeing, decreasing the risk of chronic disease, and fostering confidence. The great thing about these pillars is that you can begin to incorporate them into your life immediately!
1. Honor Hunger and Satiety
Intuitive eating means eating when hungry and stopping when satisfied. Children are born naturally intuitive. Eating in this way has been found to support healthy metabolism, normal growth and development and other health measures. Hunger is the body’s signal that it is time to refuel. Gentle satisfaction means that the gas tank is sufficiently full.
To support intuitive eating in children, never force a child to eat. Trust them when they say they are no longer hungry and allow them to eat when they are. Also, do not restrict food or use food as a reward.
When children are allowed to eat when hungry and given permission to stop when full, they will accept a greater variety of foods, won’t binge or overeat for fear of scarcity and will try new foods with less intimidation.
Both you and your child have different jobs when it comes to feeding and eating. Think of this as a “division of duties.” As a parent, you have two jobs when it comes to feeding: you decide WHEN and WHAT you will feed your child. Your child also has two jobs: they decide IF and HOW MUCH.
The majority of the time, when parents feel that they have “picky eaters,” they just have a child who is growing and developing typically and is intimately tuned in to their hunger and satiety signals. These children may not need much food to feel satisfied and lose interest in eating once they have had enough. Eating frequent snacks and drinking caloric beverages (such as juice or milk) between meals is often enough to satiate some children who then arrive at the dinner table full and uninterested in eating. Research also has revealed that the more parents pressure their children to eat, the fewer fruits and vegetables they do eat. Additionally, becoming a short-order cook and making a special meal for your child further perpetuates the habit. If your child is truly not hungry, respect that! There is no need to give your child special “kid foods” to entice them to eat when they are not hungry.
Although it is counterintuitive, giving the control of if and how much they eat back to your children, encourages them to become more adventurous eaters! Avoid crossing into their autonomy of how much they choose to eat. It may feel scary at first, but as you get the hang of it, it gets easier and conveys your trust in their eating intuition, allowing them to continue to strengthen these skills over time.
2. Emphasize whole plant foods.
For maximum health benefits, aim to load up your meals with whole plant foods. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts and seeds in their whole form are packed with vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber that promote health and decrease our risk of chronic disease. Processed foods are foods that have been refined and have had fiber removed or have additives such as sugar, salt, preservatives or artificial colors and flavors. Processed foods are often lower in fiber and antioxidants and higher in sugar, salt, and fat. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing, but the more whole plant foods that you include in your family’s diet, the better. Children thrive on a whole food, plant-based diet! The best news is that eating in this way does not have to be complicated!
Easy meal ideas include:
Breakfast: Oatmeal with fruit
Lunch: Hummus and vegetable wraps
Dinner: Easy bean chili with brown rice, steamed broccoli, and fruit salad
Snacks: fresh fruit, raw veggies with hummus, roasted chickpeas, avocado toast, healthy trail mix, smoothie
Children who eat sufficient calories from whole plant foods will absorb adequate protein to support normal growth and development. For children with smaller appetites or for serious athletes, bulk up calories by including plenty of whole foods fats from nuts, seeds, and avocados. Adequate iron can be obtained from many plant foods, but it is especially high in beans and green leafy vegetables. Calcium can be obtained from legumes, green leafy vegetables and fortified plant foods. However, one of the best ways to ensure that children are building strong bones is through weight-bearing exercise. In other words, let kids play, run and climb because it is great for their bones!
For children who eat an entirely plant-based diet, it is essential to ensure that their vitamin B12 is supplemented. This is simple and inexpensive. This can be easily acquired through a daily multivitamin that has B12. Brands that I trust include Dr. Fuhrman’s Pixie Vites or complement spray. Another option is to supplement with a stand-alone larger dose of B12 (1000-1500 mcg B12) 2-3 times per week.
3. Establish a positive environment.
Your environment supports your success. What foods, images, and messages surround you where you live, work, and play? In what ways can you make your environment match the vision you have for your healthy life? As a parent, it’s your role to be the gatekeeper of your household’s food culture. Making the food decisions, planning the menus, and doing the grocery shopping falls under your control.
Keep health-promoting foods in the fridge, pantry, and counters, and simply stop filling your refrigerator and cabinets with foods that have little nutritional value. Provide an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds on the counter or in other easily accessible and convenient spaces. Some quick and easy ideas include apples, bananas, hummus, cooked brown rice, cooked whole beans, salsa, whole grain tortillas, unsweetened applesauce, unsweetened peanut butter, and unsalted raw nuts. Place other, less healthful foods out of sight where they’ll be more difficult to access.
Another way to foster a positive environment is to avoid dieting and be cautious of the language used in the house concerning body size and shape. In their homes, children should be protected from body shaming, bullying, or teasing and should be sheltered from the influences of media and popular culture that promote the thin ideal.
4. Be Flexible
Employ the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule means that 80% of the time, strive to eat as healthfully as possible so that you have a 20% wiggle room to incorporate those foods you usually reserve for celebrations and special occasions. Food can and should be delicious and enjoyable. Pleasure is an essential component of healthful eating. The world of whole plant foods is enormous, and there are so many delicious recipes and cuisines to explore with our families. However, simple meals are just as delicious. We can teach our children that an apple can be amazing when we are hungry, and plain beans and rice can be satisfying and nourishing comfort food. If we act as if health-promoting food is bland and uninteresting, we will pass those beliefs down to our children. Eating can also still be part of special celebrations, holidays, and treats. There is no need to become a purist. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing!
5. Relax and Have Fun
Your healthy eating journey doesn’t have to be stressful. Have fun, laugh at your mistakes, and don’t give up. As parents, we do the best we can. Sometimes we make mistakes, and that’s okay. You learn what works and what doesn’t as you go. Try not to focus too far into the future and have fun now, especially since each stage of parenting comes with its own set of adventures and challenges. Enjoy exploring new recipes and strategies to integrate healthy habits into your family. And if at first, you don’t succeed, then try again. Relax, smile, and enjoy the ride! The more relaxed and confident you are, the more comfortable and trusting your kids will be. This also means focusing more on the overall pattern of your family’s habits and wellbeing instead of focusing on a particular meal or your child’s weight or size. Respect your own body and model self-acceptance and self-compassion so that your children learn these skills as well. Don’t get hung up on the little details, and please don’t try to be perfect. Be joyful and loving to yourself, and you will see how this attitude spreads to the rest of your family.
Thank you for taking the first step toward raising a healthy eater. Now that you know these simple concepts start integrating them into your lifestyle today. You will be amazed by how these will improve the health and wellbeing of your family. I am so excited for your journey and wish you the best!
Yami Cazorla-Lancaster, DO, MPH, MS, FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician, health and wellness coach, author and professional speaker. She is a passionate promoter of healthy lifestyles, especially the power of plant-based diets for the prevention of chronic disease. She founded VeggieFitKids.com where she provides information on plant-based diets for children and hosts the podcast Veggie Doctor Radio. She obtained a certificate in plant-based nutrition in 2013, is a certified Food for Life Instructor, and a certified WellCoach. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. Dr. Yami owns Nourish Wellness, a pediatric practice in Yakima, WA where she lives with her husband and two active sons. Her book, A Parent’s Guide to Intuitive Eating: How to Raise Kids Who Love to Eat Healthy will be released fall 2019. You can find out more about Dr. Yami at DoctorYami.com.