If You Can Teach Your Kids to Brush Their Teeth, You Can Teach Them to Eat Vegetables

03/18/2015 05:10 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015
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If you have children, you've likely read an article or two (or 300) on how to feed your kids. From "solving" picky eating, to "sneaking" vegetables, to 100 ways to cook pasta, it seems every parent is looking for ways to improve their children's diet.

As the Senior Director of Healthy Eating at Martha's Table, a non-profit organization in Washington D.C. that works to strengthen families and communities, I work every day to develop programs and strategies that encourage children to eat more fruits and vegetables. I've found many parents believe their children won't actually eat "healthy" food, because they themselves don't like it or because, quite simply, they don't think it tastes as good as a cookie. So we resort to bribes ("eat your broccoli and then you can have you ice cream") or we get creative ("spinach muffins anyone!?") or we just put it on their plate and insist they eat it before they get up from the table.

We are so focused on getting the food into our children that we lose sight of the bigger picture. While we try our best to cram them full of the good stuff, we don't teach them the most important lessons along the way. We just breathe deeply when they eat the spinach and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with raising a vegetable-eating child.

But the truth is, we need to stop thinking that feeding our kids well is about food, because it's not. Feeding our kids well is about raising our kids well, and we do that by teaching them good habits.

Every morning, my children make their beds (sometimes with varying degrees of success and pushback, to be honest). Every night, they brush their teeth (sometimes begrudgingly). The last thing they do before bedtime? A trip to the bathroom. These are habits that I teach, and reinforce, every single day, and that will guide my children for the rest of their lives.

When it comes to eating, we have our own set of habits that work for our family. We serve fruit at every meal. We never have the same breakfast two days in a row (thanks, It's Not about Nutrition), which means we avoid food ruts (and the never-ending cereal cycle). We always sit at the table when we eat, even if we are grabbing a handful of crackers. And we never ever eat in the car.

And just like I teach them to take their shoes off when they enter the house, I teach them these basic habits that lead to better eating. My 4-year old may argue about that trip to the bathroom at bedtime, but he knows it's part of his bedtime routine. Just like my 7-year-old knows that snack time always includes something fresh.

The best part? Kids can learn habits! They wash their hands when they come inside. They say "please" and "thank you" (sometimes with some gentle reminders). And they know that we don't snack the hour before dinner. It may not happen overnight but teaching habits -- eating vegetables, turning off the light when you leave a room -- is time well spent.

All of us have habits that guide our daily lives and that we teach our children. If we start thinking about healthy eating as a habit that we need to teach and encourage every day, just like we teach our children to put away their toys, we'll be giving them both habits that will last a lifetime as well as a framework that supports healthy eating.

Eating Habit Ideas and Why They Support Better Health

- Serve fruit at every meal: Increases consumption of fruit, which many of us don't eat enough of. Same goes for vegetables. Make appealing choices available so your children can eat them.

- Never eat the same breakfast two days in a row: Encourages eating a variety of foods, which helps ensure you get necessary nutrients, and encourages children to try new/unfamiliar foods.

- Eat at the table: Sitting and eating at a table keeps you present on the meal, which encourages you to stop when you are full (versus mindlessly eating) and increases the opportunity for family meals.

- Don't eat in the car: Beyond the inevitable mess, eating in the car becomes habitual in its own way, and suddenly every time you get in the car, your children want to eat, even if they aren't hungry.

- Stop ordering popcorn at the movies: Teach your children to eat when they are hungry, not just because they are watching a movie (and eating mindlessly). This also goes a long way in breaking the cycle of "just eating because" you are watching a movie/having a bad day/bored, etc.

- Eat dessert at the same time as the "healthy food": If you are going to offer your child a cookie, let them eat it whenever they want during the meal time, which teaches them to listen to their own internal hunger cues, and stop when they are finished with their meal. It also teaches them that healthy food should be eaten with a reward.

- Snack smart: Keep kids snacks small (bonus points for just snacking on fresh fruit and veggies) and don't snack the hour before a meal, so children come to meals hungry and ready to eat.

What are the eating habits you try to encourage in your house?