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Ask the Doc: Fitness Freaking Out

Image of Integrating healthy snacks like fruit into kid’s diets will teach them healthy eating habits. September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness month. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sabrina Fine). Integrating healthy snacks like fruit into kid’s diets will teach them healthy eating habits. September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness month. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sabrina Fine)

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Dear Doc: It seems like every time I go to the commissary, my daughter, 6, and son, 7, tend to gravitate toward the sugary cereals and frozen pizzas, and always want candy bars and sodas at the checkout. As far as I know, and as has been proven by their regularly scheduled check-ups, they are both in great health. The mother in me wants to give them what they want, but the former college athlete and current fitness freak in me is afraid that this might become a problem. For me, eating healthy has become a normal part of my life, and I've come to enjoy things that are healthy and taste good. Aside from tricking them, what can I do to get my kids to eat (and enjoy) more healthy foods?

Fitness Freaking Out 

Illustration of a female face with the words "Ask the Doc"

Dear FFO: I hear you. As parents, we’ve all been there. It’s dinner time, you’ve spent the last hour preparing a healthy family meal, you call your kids to the table and the battle begins… “Gross! Yuk! I don’t want that!”

Good on you, personally, for getting to a point where healthy eating comes naturally. That can be a difficult place to get to, but once you’re there, it’s an amazing feeling. Getting your kids to that point may be a bit more challenging, but there are several things you can do that don’t involve fooling them.

Army Lt. Col. Joetta Khan, education and research chief for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s Nutrition Services Division, shared several tips when I spoke to her about this subject:


Give them the opportunity to explore – The fact is, you can’t expect them to like everything, but you can introduce different foods, textures, and temperatures to your children early (most kids are ready to explore modified foods at around 6 months old). When introducing foods, give them the opportunity to explore the food (touch it, smell it, get an idea of what the texture feels like in their mouth). Just because they may not love it initially doesn’t mean they’ll never like it. Continue to offer different foods so they become familiar with them. The more familiar they are, the more likely they are to eat it.

Make food an adventure – Food should be about exploration. New sights, smells, temperatures, and textures can be exciting and challenging for kids. Talk about the food, link it to something familiar, and give them multiple opportunities to try it by using it in different ways. I like to keep a chart and allow my children to try each food at least 15 times before deciding if they like something.

Mix it up – Mix in new foods with foods your child knows and likes. Make it a choice. Offer two healthy options and have them choose which one they will eat. Have them choose a healthy option during grocery shopping to try out at home.

Engage kids in the cooking process – Most kids are more likely to try foods that they help prepare. Assign them age-appropriate jobs (opening containers, dumping in ingredients, turning on the mixer). Let them help choose the menu, give them a choice on how to prepare the vegetables, the texture, and other options.

Model good eating behavior – Family mealtime is a great time to help children explore new and healthy foods by demonstrating that you eat those foods. Older siblings and friends can also help with this. You might find your kids are more likely to eat foods they see other kids eating. For example, if the school offers carrot sticks, all the kids eat carrot sticks at school. Ask about school lunches or snacks, what they may like, and ask them to help you make the same snacks at home.

Avoid over-snacking – Keep in mind that children who have too many snacks won’t be hungry at mealtime and are more likely to refuse food. Offer a choice of two healthy snack options and let them feel in control as they make the choice of which of the options they want.

Don’t push or bargain – Make a healthy meal for the family and remind them this is what is offered. Encourage them to try the food, but if they refuse, kindly remind them again that it is what was offered. It is your job to offer your child healthy options, but it is up to them to choose to eat it and how much of it to eat. If they are hungry, they will eat. It might take some time, but over time they will start to eat what the family eats.

Keep an eye on media – Studies have shown that food advertisements on television can influence children’s food choices. When they express interest in a food, ask them about it, ask them what they know about the food, and then talk about it with them. They could be asking for those foods because they have seen them advertised and that generated an interest in it.

Keep the message positive – Always keep your message positive and tell them about all the great things healthy foods will provide. For example, tell them protein helps you build strong muscles, which are important for playing sports, or that non-fat yogurt gives you calcium, which builds strong bones and teeth. This will help your kids make positive connections between food and health.

If you’re still having trouble or have additional questions on getting your kids to eat healthy, don’t hesitate to reach out to the outpatient nutrition clinic at your military medical facility and ask to speak with a dietitian who specializes in pediatrics. They can work with you to develop a plan to get your kids on track to trying (and liking) healthy foods and to help ensure your children are meeting their nutritional goals to promote growth and development.


FFO, There’s some great stuff here! I’ve tried several of these ideas with my kids, and some of them really do work. Giving them a choice of what to eat within certain limitations and letting them be a part of the process of preparation can go a long way in getting them interested in healthier options. You’re already off to a good start by being a positive role model for them.

For dishes like liver and onions…well, that’s just a taste that some of us acquire and some of us don’t. All kidding aside, I hope you’re able to put some of Lt. Col. Khan’s advice to good use.

Until next time…take care out there!

–Doc

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Last Updated: August 16, 2021
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