When it comes to what they like or don’t like, kids are honest. And at mealtimes, their candor doesn’t waver. So if you’re like most parents, you’re used to watching your kids frown, grumble, or whine about having to eat their vegetables. I hate broccoli, Mom! Yes, we’ve all heard that before. But broccoli isn’t the only disliked vegetable: cauliflower, avocado, and spinach top the list of foods that kids wrinkle their noses at when they see it on their plates.
Good nutrition is essential for our health. But if you look at a kid’s menu at a restaurant, you’re likely to find that the choices, well, aren’t so child friendly when it comes to their health: mac-n-cheese, chicken nuggets, and French fries. In my new book, The Gene Therapy Plan: Taking Control of Your Genetic Destiny with Diet and Lifestyle, which is just out from Viking, I explain how nutrition affects our health at the level of our DNA. The revolutionary science behind this concept is nutrigenomics, and it explains how molecules in the body interact with bioactive compounds found in food to promote wellness or cause disease at the genetic level. Consequently, its genetic power helps prevent and heal disease fundamentally, and, for kids, my nutrition recommendations help set up a lifetime of health.
What does nutrigenomics have to do with your children? Everything. The same conditions that affect adults also have an impact on children. Based on the CDC, obesity among children has doubled. Both overweight and obese children are more likely to be predisposed to other chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes than their healthy weight peers. Eating foods like refined sugars, white flour, and trans fats have a toxic effect on the body that, over time, causes serious diseases. To prevent this, you need to instill some healthy nutritional practices in your home. By engaging your kids early in making better dietary choices, you’re setting them up to be more likely to make those same good choices as adults. Get your kids to eat healthy foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, nuts, and seeds with these simple tips.
1. Find out what your kids like: When was the last time you ate something you didn’t want to eat? Putting aside those moments when you’re at a dinner party and you politely eat your food in spite of gustatory protests, I’m betting that you avoid food you don’t enjoy. So why should it be any different for kids? First explain to your children why fruits and vegetables and other foods are important to their health. Maybe your child is engaged in a sport, plays a musical instrument, or loves to swim. Explain that healthy food gives them energy to do the things they enjoy. Ask them what they like and don’t like, and start to build nutritious meals around this great piece of intel.
2. Cultivate your child’s green thumb: Kids are curious by nature. So get them excited about healthy foods by getting them involved with vegetable gardening. You can plant seeds in your own backyard, find community gardens to participate in, or join gardening classes that allow kids to help plant, weed, and harvest. Watch your children become enthusiastic about eating something that they had a hand in producing.
3. Invite your mini sous chef into the kitchen: I was 10 years old when my mother brought me into the kitchen to watch and help her prepare healthful meals. I treasured those moments because I got to spend quality time with her while I learned to cook. This is a great opportunity to bond with your child while passing on some essential lessons about what salutatory meals look like. Use your judgment as to what your child can do: For toddlers, have them wash vegetables or stir ingredients; older kids can use measuring cups, tear herbs and vegetables, cut fruit, and peel vegetables. Be sure, however, to use child-safe equipment for cutting or peeling food. To make the experience wonderful for both of you, get through the heavy lifting first and then invite the kids to help with simple things like making a salad. That way, both of you can have fun.
4. Give them options: By giving children choices, you empower them to make decisions about what they get to eat. It also gives them a sense of independence because they get to choose. So rather than giving your child an apple, say, “Would you like an apple or an orange?” Both are healthy, and giving a choice between the two is a win-win.
5. Mix it up! Experiment with vegetables: You may find that your child won’t touch carrots, broccoli, or kale when it’s by itself. So combine vegetables into other dishes like lasagna or a casserole. Alternatively, you can increase your child’s consumption of healthy foods by cooking with herbs and spices like turmeric, basil, and rosemary that not only contain health-boosting phytochemicals and nutrients but also add flavor without the use of salt. For salads or grains like quinoa, consider adding nuts, which give food a nutritious boost while providing that crunchy texture kids love.
6. Lead by example: Children mimic their parents. So it’s important to show them that you enjoy eating healthy foods, and they will follow your lead. As a role model for healthy eating, you’re instilling good health practices in your children that will continue on into their adulthood. You’ll also be optimizing their DNA for a lifetime of health.
MITCHELL L. GAYNOR, M.D. is the founder and president of Gaynor Wellness and a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Weill-Cornell Medical College with more than twenty-five years of experience treating patients. His work has been featured in The New York Times and he has appeared on many national television programs, including Good Morning America, The Dr. Oz Show, and The Martha Stewart Show. He lives in New York City.