How to Get Kids to Eat Healthy

I recently received this question from a Total Body Reboot member and wanted to address it because it falls into the category of “How can I get my kids to eat healthy?” It’s a question I receive almost daily at this point, so I think it’s time to address it with an article.

Kevin,
Do you have any advice on how to implement the program with children? We are thinking about just doing it all together as a family. We have six children ranging from 13 years old down to 1 year. We are thinking we should just dive in, cutting out all ANTI foods, to give our bodies a chance to heal themselves, learn about what our bodies want, and later personalizing our long term lifestyle according to what our bodies need and want. Eliminating grains and dairy and sugar will be the hardest. Is cutting all of it out at once a good idea? And with children who are going to have a rough time giving up their favorite and comfort foods? Just wondering what your advice would be in these situations.

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes within. If I find math interesting, then I’m intrinsically motivated to engage with math. Extrinsic motivation comes from something external. If my mom threatens to spank me if I don’t get in the car, I’m extrinsically motivated to get in the car.

Intrinsic motivation is typically viewed as the most powerful form of motivation. It’s also the most authentic motivation. The core of Authentic Parenting is recognizing your child’s intrinsic motivation and working from that starting point while trying your best not to color the relationship with the use of extrinsic motivators. That strategy holds true for eating.

The optimal way to approach healthy eating is to introduce it from day one. First breastmilk, then baby-led solids (real food-based), and then full meals. Prior to the age of two, there’s no reason for children to have much experience with processed foods.

Children are normalized to consistent environments. If you commit to real food from day one, they’ll be normalized to real food. This is both physical and psychological. Their tastebuds will be physically different. Their gut biome will be physically different. And their mindset will be programmed a certain way.

When the child turns two and starts to have more preferences, is verbal, and is exposed to a wider range of situations where processed foods are likely to be served, then I recommend switching over to the health bank account philosophy and teaching children how to create balance with eating.

Using the Five Pillars During Transition

Alas, that’s not most people’s situations. As the email says, there are six children involved and the transition to real-food is new for everyone. This scenario may seem more complicated, but it’s really not. It just requires a different strategy.

Where strategy one requires only one of the five pillars (patience), strategy two—dealing with kids whom you want to transition—requires all five.

Empathy: It’s important to understand that your children are physically different if they’ve been exposed to a diet that is predominantly processed foods. And a diet that’s predominantly real food is going to seem foreign to them. Connecting with their feelings and needs (the need for both consistency and autonomy being top of the list) here is critical.

Integrity: The only way you can authentically commit to real food as a family is if both parents are completely on board and can consistently model the behavior. Remember, “Do as I say, not as I do” represents a complete breakdown in authenticity. Real leaders lead by example, not by fiat.

Self-Awareness: It’s important to acknowledge the road you’ve led your children down thus far. Take responsibility for it in direct communication with your children. Instead of trying to sell them on the benefits of eating healthy or trying to make decisions for them, talk about how important healthy eating is to you and take responsibility for not introducing it to them sooner. Kids don’t care about their health because they don’t have enough life experience to know why it matters, so talk about your health in a way they can relate to. Perhaps tell them you want to eat healthy because you want to be around for them as long as possible.

Patience: Making big changes like this isn’t going to happen overnight. And you’re certainly not going to achieve buy-in from kids overnight. If you’re not willing to play the long game, don’t make changes at all.

Negotiation: There’s going to be some negotiating required. This is especially important to help kids retain autonomy over the transition. The more you’re willing to come to the negotiation table, the more authentic buy-in you’re going to achieve.

What Transition Might Look Like

I want to stress that every family is different. Kids have different personalities. While I can lay out some steps, it doesn’t mean it’s a hard and fast blueprint for success. It’s more of a suggestion-based strategy. The only things that can’t be changed or over-written are the five pillars above—those are values-based principles that should always be respected.

  1. Family Meeting Part 1. This is your chance to discuss your goals and some upcoming changes with the kids. Remember, this is not a meeting where you issue a decree. It’s a meeting where you lay out your thoughts and ideas. The less technical you are, the better. Focus on connecting with your children—keep the discussion focused on communicating needs and feelings.
  2. Family Meeting Part 2. Once you’ve communicated needs and feelings, you want to invite the children to give their perspective and communicate their needs and feelings. Ask them if they have any goals related to their health (or ask if they’ve ever thought about it before). Listen intently. If there are any objections, default to validation and consideration rather than argument.
  3. Family Meeting Part 3. Game plan. Talk about what steps to take, such as rebooting your kitchen and pantry (throwing away all the junk and restocking with real food) or planning DWYLT activities. Get everyone’s input on who can help with meal planning, grocery shopping, food prep, cooking, etc. See if the kids want to take part in picking out recipes. Make sure everyone is heard and included.
  4. Execute. Follow through with the plan that everyone helped make. If someone doesn’t want to be involved, don’t force them to be.
  5. Circle back. After a week or two, regroup and assess how things are going. Take time to get more feedback from everyone. Make adjustments where necessary.

Some random thoughts…

If you have questions, leave them in the comments and I may end up addressing them here.

What if some people don’t want to throw out the processed food? It’s not a problem. Let them keep what’s already in the house until it’s finished. Just be clear, as the financier, that you won’t be buying any more on a regular basis. Of course, the kids are free to use their own money on whatever they want.

What if my kids are picky eaters and don’t like any of the new foods? First, it’s important not to label kids as picky eaters. It’s also important to understand the biology behind pickiness. But this is why it’s important to invite the kids to get involved with meal planning. If they choose it, that usually means they’ll try it. Especially if they helped cook it. But go slow, be empathetic, and be inclusive.

Play the long game, commit to the process, and remember your goals. Transition isn’t easy. There’s a learning curve. It takes a big time investment on the front end until the new behaviors become habits and routine. Is it worth the work? Absolutely. Just be patient and allow for mistakes and setbacks.

Trigger or support intrinsic motivation. If you can trigger intrinsic motivation by getting your kids authentically interested in some part of this process, it’ll help tremendously. You can start with books geared toward real food for kids, such as Eat Like a Dinosaur. You can get your child cooking lessons if they show an interest in cooking (or just teach them yourself if you’re a good cook). You might even let your kids experiment and try to create their own recipes. Building a small garden is a fun activity for kids as well that helps them nurture their relationship with food.

Healthy living is not Dieting. There should be no talk of calories, fat, carbs, scales, weight, or anything else. Absolutely none of these tactics either. This is about nourishing everyone’s bodies, moving in ways that inspire, getting plenty of play and sleep, and connecting as a family. For more on authentic healthy living, check out the work we’re doing over at Rebooted Body.

Don’t be come a health Nazi. Don’t aim to control what your kids eat outside of the home. Even though you’re the finance department for groceries, it would be unfortunate for everyone involved if you let perfectionism drive your purchasing. Set an example for authentically healthy eating by modeling things like balance, non-obsession, and calmness.

You can transition the parents first and the kids later. There are no rules here. You don’t have to transition everyone at the same time if you don’t want to. We have a world-class program at Rebooted Body called Total Body Reboot. It’s the perfect process for rebooting mom and dad first. We’ve rebooted men and women in over 30 countries around the world now—it’s a proven blueprint.

Hopefully this helps you transition your kids and your family to healthy eating. As I mentioned before, leave questions or challenges in the comments below and I’ll address them.

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How to Get Kids to Eat Healthy

by Kevin Geary time to read: 6 min
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