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The playful path to a plant-powered family

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Have you ever found yourself pleading for ‘just one more bite’ as you encourage your child to finish their healthy meal?” Why is it easy to scoff down food that is sugary, fatty or salty and not have the same reaction when eating a whole food plant-based diet?

Fast foods can lead to overeating before you know it. This reminds me of a famous potato chip commercial slogan: “Betcha can’t eat just one.” Why is this? Let’s explore some of the fun and creative ways parents can get their children to eat more healthy and delicious plant-based meals.

It is human nature to crave sugary, fatty and salty foods since we are biologically programmed to search for them in the wild. Sweet, juicy fruits offer loads of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that help our bodies function properly. Dark leafy vegetables are low in sodium and high in potassium and other electrolytes to help aid in bodily processes. The fatty foods that our ancestors sought out were nuts, seeds, avocados, and coconuts, to name a few.

The benefits of plant-based eating
There are four categories of food in a plant-based diet. They are fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes or beans. Each category has an abundance of vitamins, minerals, nutrients and phytochemicals that help keep our bodies healthy and functioning at its best. You want to eat a variety of different foods each day.

The major difference between consuming plant-based and processed foods – such as cakes, pastries, potato chips, and meat-based foods – is that one is high in fibre. Can you guess which? That’s right! Plant-based foods are the winners in the high-fibre discussion. There is no fibre in any meat, cow’s milk, or eggs plus it takes a while to activate your body’s natural signal of feeling full. Also, these are highly calorically dense foods, whereas, plant-based foods are nutrient-dense and low in calories.

Now, let’s set the scene for your child when it is time to eat their dinner meal. After a long day of work and errands, it is time to make some nutritious and yummy foods. As you place the kid-sized plate full of veggies and whole grains in front of your child; they resist and demand something else to eat that could be labelled as fast food. The complaints go back and forth between you and your child and you are running out of patience. What do you do?

Pause and breath
If you need to go to another room and regain your composure, by all means, find your inner peace. You are doing your best with what you know and how to take care of your child. Know that your child is also trying their best to navigate their emotions and to read the natural signals of their cravings.
When children are exposed to processed foods on a regular basis, it can be challenging for their taste buds to appreciate plant-based foods. The next step, as parents and caregivers, is to press the reset button on what to offer and how to change the situation to build a successful outcome.

Family prep time
The first step in getting children to eat healthier is to involve them in grocery shopping and food prep. Find time to sit down as a family to create your menu for the week. For example, make it Macro Mondays, Taco Tuesdays or Superhero Smoothie Bowls. You and your child can create the theme and then decide what will be the plant-based meals. Search on the internet and write down the ingredients.

Assign roles to each family member so that everyone can help partake in the planning process. Some of these tasks can
include the following:

  • cutting up food
  • mixing ingredients
  • setting the table
  • picking out the music to listen to at dinner
  • choosing a dinner topic to discuss

The more fun this process is, the more your kids will be willing to join in.

Say Hi to your local farmer
Plan to visit your local farmers market or farm stand and you will be exposing your child to learning where their food is grown. Make it an educational experience by asking the farmer questions about their produce and what is in season. According to the Seasonal Food Guide, “Seasonal food is fresher, tastier and more nutritious than food consumed out of season.” Give your child the opportunity to pick out a few products that they would like to try.

Shop the outer perimeter
If you are unable to visit your local farmer’s market, you can still have a fun and productive time at your grocery store. Most grocery stores place the healthiest produce along the perimeter. It is best to stick to buying the majority of your food in this area. Depending on the age of your child, you can play ‘I Spy’ or Guess what food you need next?’ When you involve a child in the meal prep process, this opens their mind to what goes into making their food and tasting it.

Little chefs
Did you know that many children love to play dress up and imagine that they are some character? To nurture their creativity and curiosity, you may want to invest in a colourful chef’s hat, apron, child-friendly knives and cutting board. It is an added bonus when they help to choose the colours and themes. Imaginative play nurtures a child’s creativity and allows them the space to pretend many possibilities. Parents and caregivers are welcome to play along. What better way than to foster this precious bonding moment?

Getting messy with permission
If you are like me, seeing a messy area can turn on your anxiety button. So, how do we turn this switch off when we are in the kitchen with our little ones? Change your perspective of the situation. Clear out a dedicated space that will be used as your cooking station during the process. This will help to contain the spills and mess.

As your child practices cooking skills more and more, there will be less cleanup. Use encouraging words to help them when they spill something. For example, “Wow that pours out very quickly. Let’s clean this up and make a note to pour it slowly next time.” Remember, to build a new habit; we need to practice it daily and receive positive feedback that can help solidify that new skill.

The cleanup song
Many preschools and lower elementary schools use a cleanup song to help inspire and motivate their students to help with this task. Using music as a tool for group cooperation shows wonderful results. Allow each family member to choose a song they like during the cleanup time. Show off your fun dance moves.

Set an expectation that by the end of that song, a certain part of the room should be completely cleaned up. If the task is not completed, set a timer for a few more minutes until it is done. Keep the conversation upbeat and offer words of encouragement to your family. Let them know how proud you are of their work. In addition, using playful parenting ideas to invite your children to be involved in food preparation can help build a solid foundation around healthy eating.

Children are naturally little explorers and enjoy being engrossed during the process. Food is a visual and sensory object. It is important to see, touch, smell, and hear it before you finally taste it. When we serve it on a plate and leave out all the other elements, our children disconnect from the wonderful world of the food experience.

In conclusion, embrace a playful approach to plant-based meals and introduce your kids to a world of scrumptious and nutritious food choices. Try these helpful tools the next time you are having a tough time getting your child to eat a healthy meal. Set the stage for dinnertime battles and navigate child’s food preferences by inviting them into the preparation process.

By understanding the impact of processed foods on young taste buds, parents and caregivers are encouraged to press the reset button and explore new ways to introduce plant-based foods. Be creative when choosing the themed meal nights together. Let your children become active participants, fostering enthusiasm for healthier food choices. Be prepared to get messy during food prep, as children develop their cooking skills, learning through practice and positive feedback.

To deepen the connection with food, we encourage parents to take their children on a journey to local farmers’ markets, introducing them to the origins of their meals and the joys of eating seasonally. By making the kitchen a place of joy and creativity, families can embark on a playful path to a plant-powered lifestyle, fostering a strong foundation of healthy eating habits for the future.

Danielle Medina
Danielle Medina
New York based Danielle Medina is a certified Food For Life educator and an advocate of holistic fitness and nutrition programs for families ready to live their best life. Through her website she offers wellness and exercise programs, plant-based nutrition coaching and cooking workshops aimed at enhancing both physical and mental health. Look for her on Instagram at: @fitnplaymama and at her website listed above.

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