Valley Parents: The Challenge of Healthy Eating For Families

  • Ben Havilr spoons sauce into a piece of pita for his wife Tammy as they prepare dinner with their sons Max, 5, left, and Owen, 8, right, at home in Claremont, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. Tammy Havilr said that during any given meal, "someone's not going to like what we're eating, but they don'e get anything special because of that." If one of their four children decides they don't like the meal they can choose a piece of fruit to eat. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ruby Havilr, 1, contemplates a slice of cucumber before taking a bite during dinner with her family in Claremont, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Max Havilr, 5, makes himself a pita sandwich with fish and vegetables during dinner with his family at their home in Claremont, N.H, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Max Havilr, 5, surveys the dinner options taking shape as his mother Tammy Havilr slices a cucumber at their home in Claremont, N.H, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley Parents Correspondent
Monday, November 05, 2018

At 6 p.m. in homes across the Upper Valley, you’ll find a familiar scene: a toddler throwing her dinner on the floor, giggling the whole time. A sulky teen trying to text subtly beneath the kitchen table. A parent frantically scrambling to get dinner on the table, while helping with homework and listening to the endless refrain of “I’m hungry!”

Feeding kids is one of the most basic responsibilities of parents. And yet, it’s also one of the most stressful. Parents are expected to offer healthy options, cook meals that fit into their hectic schedules and find affordable ways of feeding their family, all the while knowing that the habits they start now will likely follow their kids for a lifetime.

“I realized I was going to have a critical impact on a relationship spanning a lifetime, one that impacts every corner of my kids’ life: food,” said Tammy Havlir, a Claremont mother of four.

Oftentimes, parents are left feeling like they’re doing battle over meals, rather than teaching their kids to enjoy eating well.

Melanie Loschiavo, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who practices in Bradford, Vt., often sees parents who want to instill healthy habits in their kids, but don’t know where to start teaching about nutrition, let alone getting the kids to eat healthier foods.

“With so many confusing food and nutrition messages coming from all sources, it can feel overwhelming for a parent to do the right things with feeding their child,” she said.

Despite being inundated with advice, Loschiavo and other experts say that the best thing that parents can do to encourage healthy eating in their children is to take a step back.

Focusing on the Big Picture

Today, constant messages about the dangers of obesity and the importance of diet for preventing disease put pressure on parents to know what’s best for their kids.

“Before kids I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted and didn’t think about why my body needed the proper nutrition,” said Megan Cross, a Lebanon mother of two.

However, when she had her sons she realized she wanted to set a good example for them.

“I find myself wishing that I had parents who taught me the importance of nutrition as a child,” Cross said. “But if I put the hard work in maybe my children will grow up to have a healthy lifestyle as adults.”

Many parents worry about how to talk to their kids about food, but Loschiavo insists there’s no need for parents to be scrutinizing what kids are eating. Instead, focusing on a broad definition of healthy eating is important.

“A healthy eater has a relaxed and positive attitude about food; they are able to regulate how much they eat by trusting and responding to their own feelings of hunger and fullness, they accept and enjoy a wide variety of food, and they prioritize eating as an important part of each day’s schedule,” Loschiavo said. “Research has shown us that when these sets of attitudes and behaviors are in place, the nutrients follow.”

When you take this broad-based approach to healthy eating, you realize that nagging your 3-year-old to eat her carrots is just as damaging as allowing her to skip that serving of veggies.

“Parents should try to balance toddler diets not over a day, but over a week,” said Dr. Mary Bender, a pediatrician at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor.

To establish healthy habits, it’s best to lead by example — eating whole, unprocessed foods, drinking water and taking time to eat uninterrupted. If you want talk about nutrition, keep the focus on holistic health

“I encourage parents to talk to their kids about healthy eating and nutrition from an early age, with age-appropriate discussion,” said Lou DiNicola, a pediatrician and medical director of primary care at Gifford Health Care in Randolph. “For example, ‘Eating well will help you grow strong, run faster, etc. You need calcium, iron and protein to develop strong bones and muscles.’ ”

What you’re not saying is just as important.

“Don’t talk about your weight, their weight, the neighbor’s weight, your relative’s weight,” Bender said.

Discussing food as fuel, rather than labeling foods as “good” or “bad” is a more realistic approach that recognizes that kids will eat a variety of foods — including some that are treats.

“I try to use terms like ‘growing foods’ and ‘foods that make you strong’ versus ‘junk food,’ ” said Ashley Luurtsema, a Haverhill mother of a 2-year-old. “I am perfectly OK with a little ice cream or chocolate every once in a while, but I want to encourage good foods in a way that is positive rather than just ‘right and wrong.’ ”

Getting Back to Basics

Today, science provides a deluge of information about what’s healthy. Most adults have counted calories — and maybe even macronutrients — and we are endlessly exposed to the latest trends in healthy eating. However, Loschiavo said that it’s best to use the information you initially learned about nutrition all those years ago.

“Use the basic food groups that you may have learned about in fourth grade,” she said. Those are proteins, grains and starchy foods, vegetables and fruit. For meals, try to serve at least three food groups, with one of them being a protein food. For snacks, try to serve at least two food groups.

“If you stop trying to please the food police who try to layer on rule after rule, you come to realize that using just these basic food group ‘rules’ can make putting a family meal on the table pretty doable,” Loschiavo said.

It’s also important to take a step back during mealtimes, putting technology aside and enjoying conversation.

“There are so many reasons for this,” Loschiavo said. “Eating is a sensory experience. Chewing, smelling and tasting food signals the brain and activates the mechanisms that regulate eating. Those brain signals work best when the body is relaxed and kids can tune into them without competing activities.”

Eating on the run might help parents keep their schedule, but it can be damaging in the long run.

“Eating problems occur when kids eat alone, grab meals or snacks and munch along mindlessly in front of the TV, or in their bedrooms, or while doing homework or riding in the back seat of the car,” Loschiavo said.

Making Food Fun

At its best, eating should be a pleasurable experience. Kids are much more likely to be happy about eating healthy if they’re invested in the foods that are on their plates.

“The food industry entices children by putting bright colors and cartoons on packages,” said Dr. Clare Drebitko, a pediatrician at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center’s Ottauquechee Health Center in Woodstock. “At home you can make healthy foods more fun and appealing by arranging sliced fruit, veggies, nuts and cheeses into a funny face or other pattern, then you can let kids make their own ‘pictures’ with these foods as well. They are usually more willing to try foods when you make it fun!”

Parents should also involve kids in the process of growing, shopping for and preparing foods,

“Who wouldn’t want to eat a blueberry they just picked, a cherry tomato they’ve harvested, an apple they just picked, or corn they’ve just shucked?” Bender said.

Most of all, remember that teaching your kids about food should be fun, not stressful.

“Take pleasure in eating with your child,” Loschiavo said.