• Amy Picco, DO

The Family Nutrition Shift – Tips to Improving Kids Buy-In

Are you making shifts in your food or eating patterns at home? Do you have a family you cook for? Are you having trouble getting the family (I bet it's mainly the kids...) to buy in to the changes you're making?

I have been exactly where you are. Intellectually, we know that the changes we are making to our family food plan are needed and right. In reality, it can be hard work. Kids can be picky. They, like all of us, are used to what they know. They have habits and comforts and fears around food. And it’s safe to say they don’t share our feeling of urgency or need to make big shifts in the food they eat. Talking about nutrition, digestion in our gut, or the connection between food and health can be nebulous for kids. It’s hard to personalize.

How can we increase buy-in from our kids to these shifts? How can we take fear off the table? How can we approach these changes with joy, curiosity and delight?

To these ends, I’ve come up with a few ideas for improving the likelihood of buy-in (and therefore success, healthy, vitality and peace for all of us) from the kids:

The Rainbow Game

The goal here is to see how many colors you can eat in your food. We know that the more colors are in your diet, the more important nutrients are in your body. Each family member is competing with themselves, not with each other. You’ll take a day well before the game begins and help each family member count how many colors are in each meal. You’re acting curious at this point, just seeing how many colors you find at the table. You’re planting the seeds of the game. A few days later you’ll introduce the game, explain the rules as if you heard a great story and can’t wait to share it with your family. Every meal you will each count the number of colors on your plate. It’s a competition only with yourself. Where did you start and where did you end the week? In order to make it fair, you’ll invite the kids to the store to choose some fun colors. Let them pick things – but only if it’s real food. Spend some time in the fruit and veggie isle. Tell them they can pick anything they see that looks good. Here are the rules, again:

a. Start with the score from your most basic meal, without any interventions. Many kids we call picky choose a “white” diet so their starting score is low. This is good; it provides a huge chance for scoring big!

b. Discuss the rules of the game (in a fun manner) well before it starts. Ask if they’ll play with you. If they say no, say ok, maybe another day. Then ask again a week or so later, when they seem happy and agreeable, on a night of a dinner they love.

c. Keep track of each person’s scores on a visible white board/chalk board/poster paper OR if the kids don’t seem in to it, just tell them to remember their score. NO SHAMING. This is supposed to be a fun opportunity for them to feel control over their health and learn about food.

d. You can have the game last nightly for a week, choose just one night a week for a month, or whatever works for you. Remember, this game is a competition with YOURSELF, not between family members. Though I don’t know siblings who won’t want to beat the other in the game!

The Slow-Down, Weekly Adjustment Approach

Sometimes we find our kids, in their quest for control over their bodies and the decisions that shape their day, will dig in their heels to avoid change. I have been there on this one! Instead of coming head to head with their very solid stance, let’s take a step back. They are asking for control here, so let’s honor that. Let them choose. It can be one food item a week, what meal they choose, or how they want it prepared; start with anything that they will budge on. Give them a choice and let them tell YOU what the change will be. This builds trust and shows them that we’re not taking any food away yet, just adding some new ones to try. We are blessed these days that nearly every grocery store we frequent has many, many choices of healthy foods to try and buy. Here are examples of choices I gave my son, Jack:

1. “Ok, so you decide this week what our food adventure will be, Jack. Would you like to try a new vegetable, a new type of bread or a different kind of milk?”

2. “Ok, Jack, so you don’t want to try a new milk this week but what about a new type of ice cream? How about you pick a non-dairy sweet treat first, to see if we can find a nondairy milk that we like?”

3. “Ok, Jack, so how about you tell me what day this week you’d like to try the new bread I bought? You can decide what meal and what day and what you’d like on it.”

4. “How about you come to the store with me and pick out which new side dish looks best for our dinner? There are so many new options for us!”

5. “Let’s sit down with some cookbooks and you pick the meal that looks best to you.”

Honestly, this approach will work with most kids. The key is being patient and keeping it up. It’s a slow process but one that can change your diet 180 degrees within a few months. Encourage them to cook with you, to pick the meals, to pick the two vegetables with dinner, to ask for things that are real food at the store. Once you’ve found things that everyone thinks is at least “ok” then start, slowly, incorporating it into the monthly meal plan. Don’t take away the original item entirely – start with having it available about 75% of the time, then every other week, then just once in a while. Keep trying new items to find the ones that everyone likes.

The Compassion Project

When trying to win them over intellectually doesn’t work, sometimes tapping into their emotions will. This is not guilt or shaming. We are not trying to trick them or trap them into submission. We are simply activating their heart, which often (if not always) knows better than our heads. In this approach, we discuss why it is we would like to change our diet for ourselves and ask that they join us on this food adventure. To do this well, you need to sit down and tap into YOUR emotions. Think about WHY this is important to you. Why now? What does it mean to you? Keep it about you, not so much them. You’re opening your heart to them, not guilting them into getting on board. How important is it to your health and well-being? How happy and safe and honored would you feel if your kids supported you in this? Tell them that. Gently. Without judgement or expectation of an immediate response from them. Tell them and then let that settle for a few days. Then, if they haven’t budged or mentioned it, say it one more time and this time ask them to help you. Tell them that you really need their help and company in this adventure in food changes. That you’re willing to compromise, so what are they willing to do with you?

The Absent-Minded Professor Approach

This one really works with the kids who ask WHY a lot. For me, this approach worked when directly asking or suggesting anything to my pre-teen was met with skepticism and an immediate NO. It is the sole job of a kid to be finding their own way into the world, is it not? So, it shouldn’t be surprising when they want to do it all themselves and question us as their leader.

The approach here is to remain an absent-minded professor. Take all of your energy away from the child; all the intense caring and worrying. Pretend that you are a very curious professor and this child in front of you is one of hundreds of your students. You are learning a million facts about food and nutrition and wellness and this small person in front of you happens to not know something important and so you decide to let them in on one of your newly found secrets. You have no personal attachment to the data you’re sharing and your attitude says to him that you don’t much care, you’re just relaying facts.

I have used this approach successfully in the following circumstances:

1. My son Nathan was having trouble sleeping. I nonchalantly told him about a study I read showing how sleep masks covering the eyes provided study subjects with dramatically improved sleep – both quality and quantity. “How fascinating” I said, totally detached from the personal investment I had here. Within a few days, Nathan asked me to buy an “eye pillow” so he could try it. We did and Nathan has been sleeping through the night ever since.

2. I nonchalantly told the kids about the physiology of what happens in the gut when it’s inflamed and we choose to eat gluten. I spoke in words they could understand but without any emotion. I chose to do this during a week that they asked for bread like it was water. While they were eating their sandwiches on gluten filled bread I simply spewed the facts as if I didn’t really care at all, but hm, interesting facts they were. I told them about inflammation all over the body linked to that gluten and linked to a struggling gut. I left it there. The next day at the store they surprised me by agreeing to a gluten free bread option.

3. When struggling to increase vegetable consumption one week, during dinner, I told them about a study I read revealing that people who ate at least 7 servings of fruits and vegetables lived the longest and had the least illness in their life. I then counted the servings on my plate and said, “Hm, looks like I’m going to live the longest here!” For the next few nights, they (on their own) brought it up and counted their veggies, sometimes even adding fruit to see if they made the cut to living the longest. I can still bring this up casually and see their response in veggies and fruit chosen that day.

The Avatar

One great way to promote behavioral change is to imagine that your body is an avatar, or game pieces. Kids are really good at this! “They” are the person inside the avatar, making the decisions and seeing how the avatar does. They are in charge of caring for the avatar and playing the game of life. They can ‘level up’ as they play and see how high they can score as their avatar gets older. They may find that helping others level up allows them to unlock new levels to the game! They may also discover that their avatar doesn’t always know what’s best – like when all the avatar wants for dinner is chocolate. In those moments they have to work with their avatar to figure out how to get through the challenge and feel good inside and out. How do we remind our kids that this mindset is available to them and can be a fun way to approach their body? Have fun with this! When life seems to get serious, it’s nice to add some silly.

Know that none of the above options will always work and sometimes leaving something alone for a day or two and reapproaching it later is the best option (how many times have you walked away from and then restarted your computer when it fritzed out??). But what they all have in common is keeping your head engaged, your emotions calm, and unrelenting respect for your little people. It is a fun adventure, growing the next generation, that is for sure!

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