Remember how easy it was to choose food for the baby during the first year? It was breast milk or formula and then rice cereal, strained peaches and Cheerios. As the options expand with each year, so do the challenges of creating menus that satisfy taste buds and nourish bodies. To get some expert advice on feeding everyone from picky toddlers to recalcitrant teens, I turned to a mom who is a professional food coach.
Today’s Questions & Parents feature, or Q&P for short, is with Pleasantville resident Hillary Marra, who has a consulting business called My Family Food Coach. She also is the co-founder of The Edible Garden at Bedford Road School in Pleasantville, where schoolchildren are growing, harvesting and eating their crops. She’s also a mom of three children, ages 16, 13 and 9.
Q: When you meet with your clients for the first time, what are you hearing about their eating habits?
P: The first thing I hear is how busy families are with parents working, volunteering and driving their kids to different activities. Behind that is a cry for help. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no extended family to pick up the task of making dinner. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also an underlying fear of failing with family food, since there are so many emotions intertwined. As uncomfortable as it is for 5 o’clock to roll around and you don’t know what you’re making for dinner, it’s familiar. It’s scarier for many people to set the menu on Sunday night and say, “Tomorrow we’re going to have chicken and rice.” When people come to me, they are worried about getting their kids to eat a healthy dinner, but I help them understand that dinner is just one of the meals of the day. Getting kids to eat healthy for life is a bigger investment.
Q: Why is this seemingly simple and timeless task Ã¢â‚¬â€ feeding ourselves and our kids Ã¢â‚¬â€ so complicated?
P: Parents lead busy lives, and the essential task of providing family meals is never-ending. This is not easy for everyone. Some parents need help planning, some with cooking, some with sidestepping the power struggles. Also, there is a fine line between giving too many choices and being too controlling with our family food. There are so many emotions involved with food. It can be stressful, and kids know when they can push the food button. It is our reaction to our childrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s behavior we sometimes need to change. When our kids see their food behavior doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get a rise out of us, they change their own food behavior. So the ultimate power within our reach is changing our response to their behavior instead of trying to change our children.
Q: What benefits have you seen when a family changes its eating habits Ã¢â‚¬â€ beyond perhaps losing a few pounds? Any interesting stories?
P: People come to me to get their kids to eat healthier, but what happens along the way is they stop fighting about food. They begin to have a closer relationship with their child because they are no longer waging daily battles with them over what they will eat. I remember being at the home of one mom and when she heard the sound of her daughter getting a snack, she called out, “Why are you opening the fridge?” I asked her if she would do the same thing if her daughter was slender, and she said, “Probably not.” The daughter was beautiful, she was curvy. Imagine if the only limited interaction between a teenage daughter and her mom is telling her to close the fridge? It distances her from her mother. It starts with these negative feelings and this lack of closeness. As parents, when we give up trying to be right and recognize we want our kids to eat healthy because we love them, we are then able to see the little things we can do on our end. Instead of trying to change our kidsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ behavior, whether by bribery or by force, we can bring pleasure into the picture with simple daily efforts that work. When you stop the family food fight, relationships between parent and child deepen. If you are a mom whose daughter throws away the healthy lunch you pack, start a dialogue with your child. The conversation can begin by asking your daughters what they want to eat, how much, how often and how to balance this with other foods. Forbidden foods become less desirable when we are taught how to enjoy them in moderation. Trust me, I know. I am in this field of food coaching because I struggled as a teen, not knowing what to eat. I have kept 20 pounds off for 20 years when I stopped dieting and learned to eat healthy and enjoy all foods. Food conversations with our children can diffuse power struggles.
Q: How can we as parents get our kids interested in healthy food?
P: It’s important to welcome children into the kitchen by taking them to buy a cookbook or cooking utensils. It speaks volumes to buy fun trays and kitchen tools for kids Ã¢â‚¬â€ thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an unspoken, Ã¢â‚¬Å“You belong, welcomeÃ¢â‚¬? message. Most children, if welcomed into the kitchen, want to create and play with food. Many times people put gates at the kitchen door to keep their young children out. I ask clients, “How and when will you let them in?” If you increase their food experiences as toddlers, you’ll tap into their natural curiosity. When kids cook, they proudly own their food and want to eat it and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no longer about “good” food versus “bad” food. When kids grow their own food, they are also so invested in it. I co-founded The Edible Garden at Bedford Road School in Pleasantville with Andrea Garbarini so all 700 kindergarten through fourth graders would connect to and enjoy their fresh, healthy, curriculum-related crops in a hands-on way. When kids grow it, they want to eat radishes on baguettes with cream cheese, broccoli with dip and salad tacos and wraps. Sometimes it’s as easy as getting kids in the kitchen cooking, shopping together at the farmerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s market and having aesthetically pleasing fresh fruits and vegetables available when theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re hungry. Having their friends over for dinner is fun and effective. Creating basic, enjoyable rituals with fresh food goes a long way. Getting our kids to eat healthy can start by simply saying less. When they taste new foods, resist the temptation to make a big deal about their liking the foods, and instead praise them for being good at trying new foods.
Q: What are some basic strategies all parents can try to get their households eating healthier?
P: Simple things parents can do and feel good about is having cut up fruits and vegetables with dip at eye level in the fridge ready when kids are hungry at 5 p.m. Change the word Ã¢â‚¬Å“dinnerÃ¢â‚¬? to Ã¢â‚¬Å“food timeÃ¢â‚¬? and our shoulders will go down a notch. Five oÃ¢â‚¬â„¢clock comes every day and with a simple plan, we can enjoy rather than dread this part of the evening. The 5 oÃ¢â‚¬â„¢clock plan helps keep kids from reaching for packaged snacks or melting down because theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re hungry while weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re trying to hang on to pulling off the perfect home-cooked meal called dinner. Put the fruit, veggies, and dip on the table and say food time will be soon. These simple new strategies we take on are more effective than trying to change our child. Another thing parents can do is to know what nights they absolutely canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t cook because they get home too late. Opt for some healthy takeout like Greek salad with soup, hummus and pita or anything grilled or sautÃƒÂ©ed rather than deep fried. I teach simple recipes and what to have on hand in the house. Any of these ideas implemented slowly and consistently, equals success. Sometimes we try to change too much all at once. One change a month equals 12 a year, and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s something to feel great about!
Q: How much of this is mental? That is, if you make excuses about being busy, you give yourself and your family permission to order pizza yet again?
P: YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re right, so much is mental. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard for some parents to figure out food on their own. I, too, would order pizza again if I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have other strategies in place or food in the house. When eating right becomes easy, enthusiasm enters the picture. When we enjoy good-tasting food without fighting and everyone eats something, not only is the dread of family meals removed, we also have more time and energy to focus on other things we enjoy. Much of this happens with a plan in place, for example, knowing in advance what day of the week will be planned pizza, rather than thinking all day about whatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s for dinner. Rather than play short-order cook, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s helpful to serve parts of the meal where everyone likes something. An example of this is to make turkey tacos for the two children who like it, while making a turkey burger for the third child who doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t.
Q: WhatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a typical weekday dinner for you?
P: On a planned pizza day weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll order pizza plain or with vegetable toppings, sautÃƒÂ©ed broccoli on the side and lentil soup from a local pizzeria. People love hearing that my kids eat frozen food or take-out on busy days. On days I can cook, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll have turkey burgers or tacos, chicken fajitas, grilled salmon, or baked chicken parmesan with pasta and broccoli. I look to rev foods up a notch to make them more healthful by baking instead of frying and, when ordering take-out, add healthful foods, like the soup and broccoli, with the pizza order.
Q: Any favorite recipe youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d like to share that kids are guaranteed to love?
P: Most kids like quesadillas, my revving it up version takes three ingredients and five minutes, and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a delicious, healthy dish high in protein and fiber!
Ingredients: whole wheat or white flour tortillas, organic low-fat shredded mozzarella or other type of cheese, 1 can of black beans, drained.
Place one tortilla in skillet without adding any butter or oil.
Sprinkle shredded cheese to cover surface of tortilla.
Place a thin layer of drained beans on top of cheese.
Top with second tortilla.
Cook on low flame several minutes, flipping until each side of quesadilla is lightly browned and cheese is melted.
Cut into pieces and serve.
Q: What are your childrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s favorite foods?
P: Some of my three kidsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ favorite foods are chocolate, sugar and hot dogs. DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m kidding! We have balance because the one who loves chocolate also loves salads and whole grains; the one who loves sugar loves beans, cooked broccoli and raw carrots; and the one who loves hot dogs loves soup and cooked vegetables. They all love fruit. I emphasize cooked versus raw vegetables because one way of sidestepping a power struggle is feeding vegetables to your child the way they like them. Having the child who doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t like raw vegetables make the salad dressing and proudly tossing the salad goes farther than force in getting them to taste it. When they do taste it, we succeed if we praise their trying something new, not whether or not they like it. We just have to remember not to comment too much. I encourage parents to stay away from force and bribery, which can backfire. I have worked with adult clients who donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t eat certain foods because they were forced to as kids.
Q: What do you always have on hand for snacks?
P: I always have salsa and tortilla chips and pretzels in the house as well as fruit, baby carrots, broccoli, yogurt, antibiotic-free turkey and organic cheese. I do excel at having a plan and having a beautiful fruit platter or veggies and dip at eye-level in the fridge at 5 p.m. for the kids to grab when theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re starving. Talking less about food and acting with a plan works.
Q: WhatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s your strategy for balancing healthy eating with the allure of snack foods that your kids undoubtedly encounter in friendsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ houses and at the grocery store?
P: I like to have ingredients on hand in case we feel like making things on a whim like apple crisp, banana or pumpkin bread or oatmeal raisin cookies. This one hour of baking teaches kids the skills they need to feel comfortable in the kitchen for life and feeds them homemade goodies that crowd out the store bought ones. Kids’ taste buds do develop. If they are raised on processed foods, that’s what they will prefer. When the kids go to friends’ houses, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s more important to bond with the friends than judge the food. There are five meals a day, and healthy eating is something that happens over time rather than making every meal perfect. They need to learn how to eat the other stuff in moderation. My approach is realistic and not rigid. For example, one day my son and I went to Friendly’s and he saw a picture of a humungous burger with the works. I took a step back and said I could be a food warden or I could understand this is only one meal. I choose to ease up and bond with my kid. I said, “Listen to your body and have as much as you want, but stop eating when you’re full.” Then the waitress came over and said, “You get two free scoops of ice cream with your meal,” I could have keeled over. I said we would get it to go, hoping it would melt in the car or I could put it in the freezer at home to save it for another time.
Q: How do you help a child focus on eating right and yet at the same time not over-emphasize food to the point where he or she starts to question themselves and get obsessed with weight or dieting?
P: IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve kept 20 pounds off for 20 years when I stopped dieting and learned to eat healthy. The depriving approach makes forbidden foods more desirable. Being a role model, especially for mothers, is a huge opportunity. Instead of controlling our children with food, we can show that we can eat sitting and when hungry rather than when stressed or for other reasons. We can let our daughters hear us proudly ask for jeans for curvy shapes if that is our body type. We can show them we feel good about ourselves with food and then go forth to live our best lives. When our food is in order we are free to enjoy everything else life has to offer.
Thank you very much to Hillary for sharing her knowledge by doing a Q&P! If you would like to be featured, or you know any parents who have expertise to share, please comment here on the blog or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, in case you missed them, here are links to earlier Q&P features. There are interviews with more than a dozen moms and dads, including a dog trainer dad, financial planner mom, writer mom, mathematician mom, baker mom, drug counselor mom and pediatric dentist mom.