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Food Thoughts For the Holidays and Beyond

I’ll always be grateful to my children’s pediatrician for reminding me, as my son started to eat “real food,” that there are two things you really can’t/shouldn’t force a child to do: eat and sleep. This was good guidance for someone who often rates the quality of her day based on satisfaction with meal choices.I’ll disclose joyfully that food is one of my favorite things in the world. The right dish can lift my spirits, change my perspective, or trigger heart-wrenching nostalgia. All of this dials up at the holidays. Throughout the ages, food has always been an integral part of celebration. For many, it’s a time to live it up and indulge. It’s also a good time to talk about healthy eating habits, practices, and attitudes. 

A common stereotype of healthy food relationships focuses mostly on moderation and limitation: don’t eat too much, avoid these foods, etc. And this is good general guidance. However, fostering a best practice eating plan is not as simple as these traditional recommendations seem to suggest. It’s important to remember – and teach our kids – that the right approach to nutrition depends on a person’s age, health condition, and life circumstances; there is no one-size-fits-all meal plan for success. Here are a few thoughts to consider:

Toddlers and younger kids should be encouraged to try, try, try. And try again, 10-15 times before many will actually accept a new food. Increasing the variety of textures and flavors they sample sets your child up to become an adventuresome eater. Constantly accommodating a picky eater can take a toll on you and your family, restricting the meal choices in your home and not benefiting your child in the long term. That being said, I always encourage families to include at least one familiar food that a child likes on every plate. Guiding your young child to try new things, modeling food curiosity, and discussing their flavor likes and dislikes leads to healthier, more balanced nutrition habits. Identify ways that you can give your toddler and younger child control over some choices related to mealtime – which cup would you like to use? – so everything doesn’t seem like a battle. 

Older kids and teenagers are ready for more complex topics, such as portion mindfulness and nutrient functions. You can certainly continue to encourage adventurous sampling, but it’s also a good idea to start discussing conscious eating and the relationship between what we eat and how we feel, how our bodies work, etc. Remember that, like it or not, today’s teenager is tomorrow’s college student or independent adult – making choices in a dorm cafeteria, or shopping and cooking for themselves. It’s a good idea to arm them with the basics of how different nutrients affect our bodies:

A good rule of thumb for promoting a healthy diet is to remind our tweens and teens to ‘eat the rainbow,’ making sure to include a little from all the food groups, including colorful fruits and veggies. Balance is  important in nutrition, and the lack of it can lead to obesity and serious health issues. And these concerns are not limited to the typical lifestyle-related illnesses we tend to associate with middle age, such as heart disease and diabetes.   

For instance, there are some pediatric weight-related conditions that aren’t very well known. One is SCFE: slipped capital femoral epiphysis. SCFE is a painful orthopedic condition that occurs when the tissue connecting the femoral head (top of the thigh bone) to the rest of the femur (thigh bone) is disrupted, causing a damaging shift between the hip bone and the leg. This results in painful ambulation (walking and moving), and often limping. Obesity is a major risk factor for this unfortunate injury, which often requires surgery, bone re-alignment, and physical therapy to fix. Teaching our children about nutrition and helping them develop healthy eating habits early on can help to prevent SCFE. 

My intent is not to spread fear or be a holiday killjoy. Everyone who wishes to should get in the spirit and be present in the joy of all the festivities. That includes not getting concerned about the occasional meal of “rolls” or a major dose of sugar in the form of extra cookies or chocolate. I simply think the holidays are a time when positive energy tips the scale, so sprinkling in a little health and wellness messaging to your children with regard to food has an increased chance at getting some good uptake and has the potential to create a lifetime of wise choices and habits in this area. 

So, how does all of this fit onto your holiday dinner table? If you’re at all like me, you might be tempted to engage the full obsession mode and flood your family with lessons about eating right the whole time they’re trying to gobble up that turkey. However, I urge you to relax and enjoy the holiday meal with your loved ones. If the opportunity for meaningful food discussion presents itself, go for it! But don’t feel obligated to make immediate changes. Healthy habits are fostered throughout the year, on a daily and weekly basis. They start with taking your kids along on thoughtful grocery trips, planning and cooking together, discussing meals, etc. Remember that food is meant to be exciting, joyful, and beneficial for the whole family.