I’m losing control of my kids, which is exactly what is supposed to happen as they get older. They’re 11 and 14, and they are developing their own ideas, thoughts, opinions. Their friends have as much influence over them right now as I do.
My son Austin and I talk a lot about the choices – both large and small – that he’ll make when he is older and has even more freedom. He likes to tease me that when he’s old enough to drive, he is going to stop at the fast food joint across from the high school every day. “I’ll be able to go wherever I want, mom, “ he tells me. “You won’t be able to stop me!” We laugh together about this because he knows that for me, telling me he’s going to eat Big Macs every day is akin to telling me he’s going to stop off for a beer every day on the way to school.
I am well aware that poor food choices do not share the same immediate and grave consequences for a teenager as the choice to use alcohol or drugs or smoke cigarettes. But if I take the long view, which I generally do, they all fall into the same category: I want to see my children grow into adults who take really good care of themselves, body and soul.
Trying to shape their eating habits has been interesting and challenging so far. With both children, we started out very healthy – I made my own baby food out of organic ingredients and tried to feed them wholesome, unprocessed foods. But life happens.
When Austin was a toddler, I was lucky to have my mom take care of him while I went to work. But she was fond of feeding him sugary “treats” and I never had the heart to put my foot down very much about it. Then preschool, elementary school, playdates and parties came along, and all the cupcakes that go with them. Here’s one of many fantastic blog posts from School Bites on that situation.
And then there is me – imperfect, busy, working, playing, sometimes tired, sometimes rushed. I relied on convenience foods at times and still do. Over the years my kids, like most kids, have developed a taste for processed food. Which is not surprising, given the fact that the food companies are working hard at making that happen. (If you have three minutes, watch this terrific Michael Pollan video about how processed food is engineered to be addictive, and the simple thing we can do about it).
As the kids have gotten older, my approach has become not to sweat each and everything they eat in the here and now so much as to try and influence the choices they will make in the future. I feel that if I am too strict about food they will ever more voraciously seek out the junky stuff at other peoples homes, at school, and wherever else they might be. And they will put too much value on it. So I am choosing to model, rather than force, healthy lifestyle choices.
At the moment, my kids eat a fair amount of stuff (notice I am not calling it food) that I wouldn’t touch myself. And I don’t feel great about that. They eat the school lunch many days because I don’t always insist on making them lunch at home. If the school lunches were better – and junk wasn’t sold on the side – it would make my job a whole lot easier. I will be writing on this more in the future as I’ve just joined a new task force to try to improve the school lunches in our district.
When we go to restaurants (once or twice a week) Austin is allowed to order lemonade or soda. I buy lots of breakfast cereal I wouldn’t eat myself because they’re cranky and slow and really hard to feed on school mornings. And I let my daughter India, a very picky eater, skip the vegetables at dinner way too often.
What they do get is the example of two adults in the household who put a high value on eating healthy food and getting exercise. They sit down to healthy, home-cooked family dinners 5 or 6 nights a week. They get cooking practice and an earful about shopping, preparing, and cooking fresh foods. We enable, educate and encourage them on the subject of physical activity and nutrition. But most of all we are relying on the “teach by example” method of parenting.
What I hope they take away, in the end, is something a little bit intangible. A sense of the joy, wellbeing, and energy that comes with taking good care of your body. I hope they can see how much I enjoy cooking with fresh ingredients, playing tennis, running in the woods, going to the farmer’s market. In the end, I make the lifestyle choices I make because they make me feel really good and they help me get the most out of my life. I hope they get that.
Will it be enough? We’ll have to wait and see.
What’s your best advice about teaching kids healthy habits, at whatever age and stage they are in?