Monday, January 18, 2010

Setting a Good Example through Healthy Eating

By Rachel Nowakowski, L.Ac.

At Thanksgiving dinner, I noticed how some kids are willing to try new foods while others reject anything unfamiliar. Like adults, children develop a natural preference for what they eat most often and enjoy. One way to get kids to make healthy choices is by setting a good example. Because the childhood impulse to imitate is strong, you can encourage your child to eat nutritious foods by being a role model.

Spleen qi is responsible for transforming and transporting food essences and absorbing nutrients. In Chinese medicine theory, children are born with underdeveloped Spleen energy. Considering this theory, we must carefully introduce new foods to children. Overindulging in sweet foods will only lead to further Spleen qi deficiency. Because Spleen qi is associated with the sweet flavor, when it is out of balance, we usually crave sweet foods. (Perhaps this is why so many kids seem to be born with a sweet tooth!)

When your kids ask to taste what you're eating, it helps to have your plate filled with nutritious selections. But healthy eating is not just about what we eat, but also how we eat. Eating while under physical or emotional stress can be harmful to the digestion, even if we are eating a perfect diet. Do you eat while in a hurry? While standing up? While under stress? Stress negatively impacts Liver qi. When this excess energy overacts onto the Spleen, digestion will suffer.

We can teach our children healthy eating habits and take special care to protect Spleen qi if we:

Sit down to eat together. Studies show that children and teens, who eat frequent meals with their families, eat more fruits and vegetables (even dark green ones) and drink fewer soft drinks.

Knowing that dinner is served at about the same time every night and that the family will be sitting down together is comforting, which also enhances appetite and digestion.

Relax. Sitting and taking the time to eat slowly and digest helps Spleen qi to break down food properly. When we eat on the run or rush from the table after eating, it sends qi to other parts of the body when we need the qi in our stomachs for digesting. Taking time to give thanks and enjoy the company of your family and friends during meals also sets a good example for children.

Limit mealtime conversation to pleasant topics. Eating together provides time for your child to share what's on his/her mind. Make mealtime an enjoyable experience by avoiding upsetting topics while at the table.

Chew well. How many times have we heard this? Yet many of us tend to speed through meals, barely chewing our food. Digestion begins with chewing. Chinese medicine says the digestive qi works to break down food into a "100 degree soup". If we chew well, food gets broken down before it reaches the stomach and leaves less work for the digestive qi.

Avoid excess fluids while eating. Don't put out the digestive fire by drinking too many fluids. It is best to drink a little at the beginning and at the end of the meal. Not between each bite. Limiting drinks for kids will also keep them from getting full before they've eaten their vegetables!

Other tips to encourage healthy eating:

Get kids involved. Let them help with the grocery shopping. It's a great time for you to teach them about the nutritional values of different foods, and how to read food labels. Let your child help with dinner by washing or peeling the vegetables. Start a vegetable garden at home so your kids can eat what they grow!

Keep only healthy snacks around. Kids are bombarded by messages that counteract your best efforts. Between peer pressure and junk food advertisements, getting your child to eat well might seem like a lost cause. They may choose poorly when they are out of the house, but you can decide what is available to them at home.

Your children are looking to you for direction on how to eat well. Show them how and help your own health at the same time. Research shows that it takes the average child 8-10 presentations of a new food before he/she willingly accepts it. So don't give up.

Have the kids help with this fun and yummy recipe:

Butternut Squash Fries. Peel and remove seeds from squash. Cut into long, 1/2-inch wide strips. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with sea salt. Toss the fries to make sure they are evenly coated. Spread fries on a baking sheet. Bake 30-45 minutes, turning to ensure they are crispy on all sides. Enjoy!