How To Raise Kids Who Are Healthy Eaters with Culturally Inclusive Foods

Culturally traditional foods are portrayed as less healthy. This food activist and nutrition expert says with these tips, Black families can create better habits with the foods they love.

Family with two small children enjoy a healthy meal
Photo: Studio Firma/Stocksy

From fried foods to palm-oil-based stews, traditionally Black dishes get a bad rap when it comes to health. Popular soul food recipes, like mac and cheese, are linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. With reasonable portions and ingredient swaps, however, Black parents can model healthy eating to kids and help them create new relationships with food that still honor Black traditional meals and culture. Kera Nyemb-Diop, M.S., Ph.D., a nutrition expert, coach, and food activist, offers parents a few tips on how to raise healthy little eaters with culturally relevant foods.

Avoid Food Shaming

Health crazes get us all hung up on eliminating one or two seemingly "bad" ingredients, like sugar, gluten, or salt. But, these ingredients—in reasonable quantities—are no cause for alarm. The way we talk about foods or ingredients can deeply affect impressionable children, who may learn that if they enjoy foods on the naughty list, then they are naughty too.

Nyemb-Diop says, "It's not necessary to tell them that sugar is terrible for them; they can absolutely enjoy their candies and fruit and veggies. As a parent, you can influence your kid's food behaviors by making sweet food less available and exposing them to a variety of foods."

Instead of saying "sugar is bad for you," she says to try something like "sugar provides energy." Or, instead of saying, "eat your broccoli, it is healthy," you can say, "green foods help you not get sick." She says that the key to healthy eating lies in exposure to a variety of foods, without shame.

Don't Focus on a Child's Weight

If you haven't heard yet, ring the alarm: the medical metrics used today to measure body mass and weight never considered people of color. In fact, they were created based on information about European men in Belgium. Recent studies have shown how these racially biased tools have skewed how Black people, especially Black women, view their bodies in relation to weight and obesity. In light of this, Nyemb-Diop says to be careful about putting your kid on a diet or food restrictions.

While they may lose weight, "it will not make the kid healthier. Help them understand that the way they look is not the most important thing about them," says Nyemb-Diop. If your child's weight presents medical or mobility complications, focus on helping them see how much better they feel with dietary tweaks and changes they control. Also, to help them learn to trust their bodies at any size, increase activities and group sports they love.

Teach Them Healthy Eating Isn't Perfect Eating

The quest to be a perfect parent in the modern world can present an overwhelming burden that shows up in how we eat. Parents are under pressure to make meals from scratch exactly how they were made "back home." And the kids face pressure to eat everything served on their plates because there are "starving children somewhere who would appreciate this meal." Social pressure and wellness do not go hand in hand.

Instead, remind yourself that you're not perfect, neither are your kids, and there's no reason to make perfection the standard. "Parents have so much pressure, but it's ok to do your best, be in survival mode, or be focused on other priorities," Nyemb-Diop says. "Don't feel guilty for feeding your kids a Happy Meal or a bowl of cheerios for dinner."

Let Kids Help Cook Traditional Meals, Not Just Eat Them

Kids love nothing more than to get their hands dirty in cooking, baking, and cleaning. This makes them feel empowered and involved in the responsibilities of their household. While many families expect elders to cook food that everyone else eats, Nyemb-Diop says that parents should flip the script.

Let kids get in on child-safe activities—far away from knives and the stove —by mixing or kneading ingredients, placing items on baking sheets or plates, and even growing some of the herbs and seasonings needed for the dish. "This is how traditional recipes are passed down through generations," she says.

Pair Unconventional Foods for Your Picky Eater

Every family has a picky eater who turns up their nose at some beloved item or is never impressed by the best home-cooked meal. Before entering into a battle of wits with your kiddo, Nyemb Diop says to think long-term. You're trying to instill a life-long healthy and positive relationship with food. "It's a marathon and not a sprint," she says. "One tip would be to serve dessert with dinner, on the same plate, instead of forcing a kid to eat dinner to earn dessert. Not only might they eat more veggies—short-term win—but also it doesn't put desserts on a pedestal." She says this opens their curiosity to try other food and be less picky over time.

She says to ditch "either-or" thinking in favor of "yes, and" perspectives. Kids shouldn't have to choose eggs or cheese. How about eggs and cheese? To vary diets, try lettuce on Monday and spinach on Wednesday. "From a nutrition standpoint, this approach makes sense for two reasons: the first one is that we need a bunch of different foods because they all have different nutrients, and the second one is that by pairing foods, you can improve the nutrition profile. It could be argued that spinach is superior, but once again, I would look at what is eaten consistently over time versus at a single meal."

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