I have said in various recent public speaking events that we are currently experiencing a “triple pandemic”:
-layered with a nutritional pandemic (diabetes and nutritionally related disease)
-and topped with a mental health crisis*
*Google searches around “depression” are up 900% since March of 2020.
To address this alarming triple pandemic, I look to the youth of our culture for their inspiration and creativity. I am lucky to have wonderful interns at my nonprofit organization, Nurture. Radka Pribyl Pierdinock has been working with me since last year, having arrived at my virtual doorstop to “see what she could do to help the world in a time of crisis”. She is a 20-year old student at Notre Dame and a dynamo of ideas and inspiration about how we can make this world a healthier place.
This article is co-authored by Radka and me. It offers 8 refreshing tips geared towards families with children about how we can creatively address the triple pandemic we are experiencing.
In today’s society, we are experiencing alarming health issues. One-third of children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes if they follow the standard American Diet. 91% do not get the recommended daily number of vegetables. Only 8% of individuals and families meet the goals they set for health at the start of each year. These statistics are staggering and must be addressed.
The Positive Path Forward
The positive path forward must involve our food. Parents must leave behind the role of being mad and angry at children for not eating vegetables, and must instead create an environment where we support and encourage our children to try new fruits and vegetables.
With January being International Creativity Month, it is time to embrace the mindset that your kitchen is like an art studio. You have endless ways to be innovative at your fingertips. Just as an artist utilizes a palate of rainbow colors when painting a picture, you can use a plate of healthy rainbow foods when preparing meals for you and your family. Here are my eight favorite tips on how to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your children’s diets:
1. Teach children where veggies come from. Children are more likely to eat foods that they have grown themselves. Plant a family garden and allow the children to sow the seeds, water the plants, and watch them grow. If you can’t plant a full garden, then create a mini garden in pots on the windowsill; a little basil or parsley can do wonders in increasing the freshness factor of any meal. Tomatoes and peppers are also great plants to grow because they do not need much sunlight. If possible, try taking your children to a local farm or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to see how food is grown. The book, Where Does a Rainbow Grow?, teaches kids that a healthy rainbow of colors comes from Mother Earth.
2. Prepare meals together. It is rewarding for children to eat foods that they have had a hand in selecting and preparing. Allow children to choose meals from recipes you have on hand or ones you find together. They’ll feel further invested when they help you prepare the shopping list and visit the grocery store. Then have them help in the kitchen by washing, chopping, and cooking the food.
3. Rename your veggies. How you name and serve foods affects how they will be received. Studies have shown that children are three times more likely to eat carrots that are called “x-ray vision carrots” as opposed to just “carrots.” Also, young children respond positively to broccoli and asparagus “trees” and cauliflower “clouds.” Other creative names to try are “power spinach” and “high-voltage sprouts.” Have fun coming up with creative names to entice your child to eat fruits and vegetables and maybe even try letting your child use his or her own creativity to come up with some names for healthy foods!
4. Play games. Simple activities such as a grocery store scavenger hunt in search of “a purple veggie to go with dinner” can go a long way in getting children interested in fruits and vegetables. Also, play a form of Bingo where children create a card that includes foods to try and reward your child with a non-food prize when they get “BINGO”- five new foods in a row. These games and activities are great ways to get your children excited and interested in healthy food! This webpage has a 30-day calendar full of activities and recipes (all for free, direct downloads) for your family today.
5. Educate, inspire and give choices. Reading food labels together can be an opportunity to teach children about healthy ingredients. Also, compare foods by noting, “Wow, this kale has the same amount of calcium as milk!” Educate children on what different colors of healthy food do for your body:
- Red–promotes healthy heart and brain function
- Orange/Yellow–great for skin/eyes and promotes a healthy immune system
- Green–builds strong bones and teeth
- Blue/Purple–rich in antioxidants and good for the whole body
- White–contains fiber and potassium and great for digestion
Children mimic their parents’ actions. Make sure that you are setting a good example by eating well and meeting your own nutritional needs. Ultimately, let children make healthy decisions for themselves; for example, ask, “What colors of vegetables do you want on your dinner plate tonight?” It is important to create an environment where children feel that their opinion matters.
6. Let children play with their food. Bring out a child’s creative side by making “edible art.” Ideas can range from a character with a cucumber head and celery stick body to a caterpillar created by arranging carrot circles on a plate. Because it is the winter, my favorite edible food creation is making a snowman out of banana slices (for the body), raisins (for the buttons), and baby carrots (for the arms). Let your kid use the healthy food to create his/her own creation… the possibilities are endless.
7. Know what motivates children (and what doesn’t). Children are not interested in hearing about cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or other health issues. The key currency for children is being able to run, play and do well in school and activities. Teach children that food is fuel, and that “go foods” (healthy foods, including fruits and veggies) are the best fuel for your body. If you ask children how a car will run if you put sand in the gas tank, they’ll likely say, “it won’t go” or “it will break down.” Help them understand that improper fuel for their body includes sugary foods, processed foods, and fast foods. Explain that the best fuel includes protein, whole grains, calcium-rich foods, and, of course, fruits and veggies.
8. Use your senses. If children don’t want to taste a food that is new to them, don’t force it. Praise children for trying foods and encourage them to describe them in a positive or neutral way, such as “these carrots look crunchy” and “this kale is bumpy.” Then, praise them further when they try a new food and describe it with positive or neutral words. This type of engagement will help set a child on his or her way to potentially trying and liking new food.
Let’s view food as fuel and as our friend. Think of calories as bursts of energy that provide nourishment for our body. We only have one body, so be kind to it. Nourish your body and your child’s body with foods with lots of vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients.
Be mindful that children at a young age have joyful energy about first experiences. Make it exciting for them when they try a new healthy food. Educate them on the importance of that food; give them a fun fact about the benefits of that food.
Food provides our body with nourishment to help conquer the day’s activities. It could also be one of the keys to solving the triple pandemic we are experiencing today.
Hopefully, the eight tips listed above will help you get started.
Wishing you and your family a joyful path to health and happiness.
Galgani, J., Ravussin, E. Energy metabolism, fuel selection and body weight regulation. Int J Obes 32, S109–S119 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2008.246