The Kid's Menu: Beyond Mac & Cheese

Pizza, chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, pasta with butter, and the beloved MAC AND CHEESE. These are what you will find on most restaurant’s kids menus, usually accompanied by fries or chips. Have we lost faith that our kids will eat anything but these foods? Yes, I do believe we have.

According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. That is an astonishing statistic! It’s no secret that our country is struggling with our weight, but as much as we focus on obesity, there is also another issue at hand: malnutrition. So many children today are walking around with excess weight and dark circles under their eyes. These kids are literally STARVING for nutrients.

The problem with the “food products” listed above is that a child can't get all the nutrients they need from them. That, and the fact that most of them are white starches, a.k.a. SUGAR. When our bodies are nutrient deprived we become out of balance and when our bodies are out of balance, they will send us a signal in the form of a craving. If you are malnourished (and not all malnourished people are thin) your body will send a hunger signal. What the body is trying to say is this: keep eating because I need nutrients, not necessarily calories. If we continue to serve our children the calories, but not the nutrients, they will never feel full and we know what too many calories leads too: too much weight.

The solution is fairly simple, but there's always reasons for why we do what we do. There's a reason these items are the only options on the kids menu. Kids are just developing their taste for food so they tend to be picky. And they tend to whine. This is a very effective strategy because I see parents every day (and I include myself some days) who have given in and truly believe their child “won’t eat meals.” When I observe these kids who “won’t eat meals,” most of them are given a constant supply of sugary snacks throughout the day. Their parents worry they will waste away to nothing if they don’t give them all these snacks. I'm not against snacks at all, but if a child knows they have an endless supply, they're less likely to try new foods or eat at mealtimes.

So here’s a start to the solution. Before even addressing actual food, alter your mindset a bit to prepare for the inevitable. You will no doubt get some resistance, especially if your kid is going from eating mac and cheese for every meal to introducing vegetables. Set some reasonable expectations and go slowly. It takes a couple tries for children to develop a true like or dislike for the food.

Tip #1: Put some limitations on the snacks.

They won’t starve. You may have to sit with your own discomfort about worrying they won’t be getting enough, but they'll never try new things unless that’s the only option. They won’t like this, but kids actually feel safer with rules and limitations. They just won’t tell you (or admit to) this. Don’t let them fill up on juice. In fact, get rid of any sugary juice boxes and opt for the naturally flavored water pouches like Honest Kids and limit to one per day. They can choose when they want to have it, but only water or white milk after that. Even milk should be limited because they may try to fill up on that instead of food.

Tip #2: Ignore the behaviors and comments.

Don’t respond to the whining. This will be the hardest part for parents because if you’re like me, you will do anything to stop the whining. Fight the urge, parents. Don’t cook them another meal and don’t give them dessert or snacks if they don’t eat their dinner. They will eventually eat what’s available when they get hungry enough. The less attention you give to their resistance the better. Where attention goes, power goes. When you make a big deal over their behavior, positive or negative, they are achieving their goal. Remember, don’t let them push your buttons. The more they have access to your buttons, the closer they come to getting their way.

Tip #3: Give options.

Just make them all healthy ones. Since I discovered that kids are of the same species, they don’t like to be bossed around just like we don’t like to be bossed around. We know (or we should be aware of) how bad food can affect our health. Kids just know how things taste until we teach them about food and how it can make us feel much better and give us enough energy to do the things we want to do. Once they get the taste of sugar or mac and cheese, it’s very hard to persuade them to eat broccoli. Why? Sugar activates the reward system in our brains. Broccoli does not. However, broccoli will make our bodies feel much better than sugar does and kids want to feel good as much as we do. Guide them instead of trying to control them. When they feel like they have the freedom to choose what they want, they can feel good about “doing it by themselves.” Even if the choice is green beans or carrots. Just don’t give the choice of broccoli or fries. You know how that would end!

I never wanted to be that mom. You know, that mom, that would never allow a non-organic food to enter her child’s mouth and insists they be vegan, gluten-free, dairy free, etc. I wanted my child to be able to explore different foods and learn from experience what works and what doesn’t work for her. I’m also not the only one who feeds my child and not everyone who feeds her makes the same choices I would. It’s hard to release control. I still struggle with this, but have come to realize that I need to trust my child’s decisions and let them happen, even if I don’t agree with them.

One of the best things you can do to foster making good choices is to teach kids how to listen to their bodies and become aware of what they are eating. Teach them the names of fruits and vegetables. Cook with them even if they make a mess. Show them how to connect with their body through simple meditation, yoga for kids, outdoor activities, and talking about how things like food and exercise make them feel. If you have a “bad food day,” instead of beating yourself up about it, learn from it. Tell your child how you feel and ask how they feel differently when they don’t fuel their body in a healthy way.

As with any change, expect some wins and some losses. Just don’t give up or give in. Let the small successes carry you to the next one. Just when I feel like maybe I’m not “doing enough,” my daughter will make a comment like these:

* “Mom, I’m playing kitchen and I’m the waitress. We have a large kale salad today with iced coffee. The iced coffee doesn’t have any chemicals.”

* “I choose oatmeal for breakfast, but only if it has chia seeds in it.”

* “Mom, I didn’t have any CRAP today!”

It’s the small things. Take it day by day parents and be comforted in the fact that we all struggle with our own parental guilt and choices. We are also all doing the best we can with what we have. Keep up the great work!


Shawn Clavelle earned her bachelor’s degree in Nursing from the University of Vermont. She earned her certification in Holistic Health Coaching from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and is also a Certified Yoga Instructor at Willow Tree Wellness & Counseling. Shawn’s vast clinical experience and knowledge of the healthcare system makes her proficient at helping others design their own treatment plan through structured goal setting and continuous evaluation of progress. Using a holistic approach with a focus on nutrition and fitness, she helps uncover the obstacles to good health and provides simple options for making better lifestyle choices.

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