It's been 18 months since I've changed my eating habits, namely by eliminating processed foods whenever possible. It's only natural that I'd want my kids to follow my lead, but they're old enough to make many of their own food choices. I've learned some lessons along the way that might be helpful to others, so here's 8 ways to get your teens to eat real food.
1. Preach less, do more.
Lectures just don't work when it comes to food. Instead, make a delicious snack that can be shared, but don't announce it ahead of time. Let them smell the aroma of easy beer bread, hear the whir of your blender as you make a fruit smoothie or see you enjoying energy balls (made with oats, peanut butter, raisins, honey, etc.) Believe me, they'll come to you inquiring, "What are you having?" and in most cases will follow with "Can I try some?" If they like it, they'll soon be requesting you to make it on a regular basis. Better yet, you'll walk into the kitchen and find they've made it themselves.
2. Be mindful and deliberate while grocery shopping – if junk isn't in the house, it’s not there to tempt everyone.
Let's face it — the grocery shopper holds lots of power in a household. This is the person who has the biggest influence on what gets consumed in the home. When I stopped buying chips and processed snacks with questionable ingredients and instead loaded up my cart with beautiful produce, my family started eating more fruit. (I have to cut up the melon or pineapple though, before anyone will eat it.) And while it takes a little more time to read labels, it's worth it. (I dropped 8 pounds in four months just by eliminating overly processed foods with hard-to-pronounce ingredients.) Here's my master shopping list for Stocking a Healthier Kitchen. You can edit and customize it for your own needs.
3. Get involved in packing their school lunches.
Once I started working full time outside the home, I had my kids pack their own lunches. I thought it was going well. However, when I started consulting from home, I discovered that my daughter was filling her brown bag with chips, pretzels and gummy fruit snacks, and not even including a sandwich. What?! So I had to step in and hover. I started packing her a nice vegetarian lunch that included a scrambled egg-cheese-and-veggie wrap, fruit, and trail mix. This topic deserves its own post, but we're both happier when I do the packing, as long as I meet all of my daughter's specifications. Do you know what your teens are eating for lunch?
4. Let them invite friends over for dinner and make them something from scratch – their friends will rave about the meal for days, and your teen will see it's cool to eat real food.
I can't say enough about this one. We all know how important and influential friends are to teens, right? So, I've always welcomed any opportunity to get to know my kids' friends. Over the course of my kids' high school years, 150-200 teens have eaten in my home. (They're the ones who gave me the nickname "Mamma C.") They know they're going to get a delicious meal from scratch here, so they beg my kids to let them come over, even if it's last minute.
It's not unusual for my daughter to text me at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday and ask if four of her friends can come over for dinner at 4:30 p.m. before the game. Sometimes, I even receive special requests with some notice. "They want you to make lasagna for dinner next Friday." Or, "They want us to have the cast party, and they want you to make your Mexican dip, pasta with sauce, and the strawberry dessert." I love that, and wouldn't have it any other way. Think about something easy you can make, and let the kids come over.
5. Teach them to make something.
This gets to the heart of why I started Cooking with Mamma C. I know it can seem intimidating to make food from scratch, especially to someone who has little experience in the kitchen. But oftentimes, it's not hard to make something really delicious. It's just a matter of explaining how it's done and letting your teen get in there and do it, even if it results in a mess. Once kids experience that sense of accomplishment and realize they can make food that tastes so much better than any packaged stuff, they'll want to do it again. Which brings us to the next point.
6. Let them cook or bake and offer to help clean up.
Often, the only thing stopping my kids from making food is they don't want to clean up the mess afterward. (Okay, this sometimes happens to me too.) But if I tell my son that I'll help wash the pots and pans and wipe down the counters, he'll start taking out ingredients before I even finish my sentence. Sometimes, he'll even cook dinner for us. Yes!
7. Don’t be the food police.
I need to remind myself occasionally of this advice, but I'm pretty good at not being rigid about my kids' food choices. If teens are old enough to drive, chances are, they'll hit the drive-thru every so often or run to the store for chips and boxed macaroni and cheese when they have a real craving. Don’t make a big deal out of it, especially if the majority of the time, they're eating real food. We laugh about these things now, and the kids tease me all the time. In fact, while I was out of town for a couple of days this week, my husband texted me a photo of the dinner table where he was sitting with the kids. I saw a nice homemade meal, but there was soda pop on the table! And they were giddy about it. When the cat's away, the mice will play.
8. Be patient. Their tastes will change the more they eat real food, and they'll no longer enjoy processed stuff as much.
The more real food we eat, the more we notice that processed foods taste artificial. I'll never forget the morning I gave my daughter a packaged bagel since I didn't have time to make any from scratch. I saw her picking at it but not really eating. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, "Mom, this tastes like plastic!" Victory, at last!!
What's worked for you?