COVID-19 has given families a unique opportunity to do something that many have wanted to do for a long time—eat meals together. Families are taking advantage of the extra time at home to cook and bake more often. This time in the kitchen also offers families a prime opportunity to step up the nutritional quality of the food they are eating. Perhaps you are wondering where you can start in packing more nutrient-dense foods into those more frequent family mealtimes—and help your children be happy about it!

You may have heard about the importance of emphasizing whole foods or shopped at supermarket chains that emphasize these products. But whether you subscribe to a particular philosophy or prefer a particular market, the idea is the same: choosing to include more whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains in the family diet. To be clear, whole foods are those that are eaten in their natural state with minimal processing. It’s the difference between offering slices of oranges instead of fruit snacks to your preschooler. In this instance, the sugars are all natural to the orange and no added ingredients introduce added calories, preservatives, or artificial flavors.

The good news is that incorporating more of these whole foods significantly decreases the likelihood of heart disease, cancer, and high cholesterol. In fact, whole foods can even increase mental well-being. These unpackaged foods are packed with vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fiber, aiding in the proper development of children’s bodies and brains so they can grow to their full potential. And while we might be onboard with these ideas, children may have a hard time changing their eating habits or seeing the value of whole foods.

Here are a few things you can do to create a whole-foods mindset in your home.

Start Gradually

Gradually adding whole foods into your meals will not only make it easier for your family to adapt to a new way of eating, but it also gives you time to learn to prepare and include these foods as an integral part of family mealtime. Begin by adding a fruit or vegetable to each meal or snack, then add more whole grains and legumes. Search the Internet for step-by-step instructions on how to cook dried beans, lentils, brown rice, quinoa, etc. Try new recipes, and gain confidence in what you are learning. As you introduce a new food to your children, consider small portions and don’t have high expectations that your children will immediately eat it and love it.

Parents often give up too soon when introducing a new food to their children—in fact it frequently takes up to 20 exposures or more to a food before children will be willing to eat it. Scheduled family meals and snacks provide the framework for that frequency and repetition to happen. While it can be discouraging and feel wasteful as children repeatedly reject offered food, the long-term benefits are that children will become increasingly open to trying new and healthy foods. Kids Eat in Color encourages “parents to think small portions for small kids. . . as it’s okay for kids to ask for more.”

Salad recipes with a variety of toppings are a great way to add the recommended daily amount of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. Keep on hand an assortment of fresh fruit and vegetables to make it easier to choose a whole food for a dinner side dish or a snack for your child. For a quick nutrient dense snack, cut up an apple to dip in peanut butter or serve vegetable sticks to dip in hummus. Frozen fruits and vegetables count too since most nutrients are preserved during the freezing process. Buy whole grain breads and cereals. If short on time, simplify meal preparation by purchasing canned whole beans, packaged salads, and cut vegetables. Remember that you don’t have to completely change your diet overnight.

As a parent, you may see the value of adding whole foods to your family diet, but because of personal circumstances, you might not have the time, energy, or money for a complete overhaul. Acknowledge small successes, such as including a side vegetable with the box of macaroni and cheese or frozen pizza. Small healthy changes in the food you offer your family add up, and these changes gradually create a healthier lifestyle.

Teach Children to Recognize Whole Foods.

Your children can learn about the importance of whole foods as you share your enthusiasm for their value. To teach them about a healthy and balanced diet, introduce them to the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate. This resource provides a visual representation of healthy whole foods, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Maybe make placemats of this plate, hang a picture on the fridge, or keep a copy near the table to create a talking point. Having the visual nearby makes it easy to refer to in discussions about the whole foods you are eating and the good these foods can do for growing bodies.

As children begin to recognize healthy food, remember to “not label foods as good or bad, as this can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. The goal” stated Dr. Kristen Fuller “is to teach a positive, open-minded approach to food while giving kids options to choose their own food and to learn the nutritious value of what they put in their bodies.”

In an article about how to trick your brain into liking vegetables, the author states that “regular family meals give parents the opportunity to expose children to new foods and model their own healthy eating habits. Research indicates that when families eat together often, meals are higher-quality, with more fruits and vegetables.”

Include Children in Food Preparation and Gardening

While new foods may intimidate children, allowing them to help prepare and cook the new item can be another start in encouraging them to be healthier eaters. One article suggests that you allow your child to weekly choose a new fruit or vegetable to try, then allow your child to help in preparing the fruit or vegetable and serving themselves.

Allowing children to see, touch, smell, and then taste the foods can create a greater interest and desire to try unfamiliar new foods. As she introduces a new food, one mother takes a tactile approach—she lets her young children touch it, smell it, and then lick it before they eat it. To help your children feel successful at each meal, make sure to include at least one whole food item that the child is familiar with eating—maybe as simple as baby carrots.

Preparing can also include gardening. From planting seeds, to watering, to weeding, to harvesting, children who participate in gardening are often more willing to at least try what they have grown. Research supports the idea “that when kids help grow fruits and vegetables, they are more likely to eat more produce and try different kinds, too.”

Adding more whole foods to family meals takes thought and time but becomes easier with practice. As you make this investment, remember that you are not only improving the health of your family, but you are teaching your children important values about healthy eating. So, take advantage of this pandemic time to build healthier habits, such as making a plan for dinner, sitting down often as a family, eating and enjoying wholesome food, communicating and laughing with each other, and realizing the benefits of healthier eating in the home.

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