It's a question many parents struggle with: How do you teach your kids to eat right in a time when obesity runs rampant? In a world where everyone around you is making poor food choices, how do you teach kids to make nourishing and healthy dietary decisions that will stay with them for life?
One way: The days of a dictatorship-scenario at the dinner table, of following the mantra "clean your plate — or else … " are over, according to Ramona Josephson, a Vancouver-based nutrition coach and president of WeightLossDeal.com.
"It all starts with being role models," she says, "and remembering, as parents, that what we do is more important than what we say. Remember that what other kids are doing isn't necessarily the right route to go. As a parent, you need to set the ground rules for your family."
Josephson encourages parents to engage their children in shopping for food, preparing food and setting the table.
"Simple things like putting a knife and fork in the right place on the table get kids thinking not just about the food, but the enjoyment of it in a family union," she explains. "By setting the table, the child learns to honor the importance of the family union that's about to happen."
When you do head to the grocery store, shop around the perimeter, advises Allison Eastwood, a San Francisco registered dietician specializing in families.
"That's where you'll find the least processed foods, like fruit, vegetables, yogurt and cheese," she notes. "The marketing on the processed foods is so heavy. But if you're going to pick processed foods, try to choose ones that have the least amount of ingredients, like cereals and health bars."
Ethel Brennan, author of The Children's Kitchen Garden, says that processed foods containing that combination of sweet and salty are easily addictive.
"The earlier you introduce that seasoning into a child's diet, the harder time you'll have undoing that addiction," she says. "Limit processed foods as much as possible. For example, for macaroni-and-cheese, instead of offering name brands that are heavily processed, cook up some elbow noodles with fresh, grated cheese. It's cheaper, fresher, less processed, but it's the same concept."
Eastwood keeps glass jars containing nuts, dried fruit and pretzels in her pantry, as well as a bowl of washed fruit that's available for her kids whenever they need to snack.
But it's also important to teach kids how to self-regulate when it comes to food, she cautions: "Lots of kids eat when they're bored. Sometimes, you have to teach them to recognize the difference between hunger and boredom."
Food and fun need to go together sometimes, suggests Josephson: "If you put fruit on a plate, a kid probably won't eat it. But cut it up into pieces" — and then add some yogurt or homemade jam for dipping — "and there's a better chance they will."
Frozen grapes and berries are more fun to eat for a kid than fresh. And "ants on a log" — otherwise known as celery with peanut butter and raisins — constitute a healthy snack. "Mud on a stick" is another option, using pretzels, peanut butter and raisins.
"Make a sandwich with jam and peanut butter in the shape of a face," she offers. "Take smaller, bite-size pieces and have fun with them. Fruit kebabs dipped in yogurt is a great snack for kids to come home to."
That post-school, pre-dinner hunger pang can also be hard to sate if you're not prepared, and that's when some of us opt for less nutritious items by reaching into a bag.
But Josephson adds that "it's equally easy to buy baguettes or pita, and offer them sliced for kids with fillings like cottage cheese, chopped tomato or hummus. All it takes," she believes, "is a change in mindset."