Is it Nature or Nurture? Helping your children to be healthy eaters.

As a child growing up in the 1960’s, I don’t recall that our family ate particularly healthy meals. The health and wellness revolution wasn’t in vogue yet. But the feminist movement was; as women began shedding their aprons for business clothes, finding ways to make lives easier became imperative. American housewives rejoiced as the dawn of convenience and frozen foods helped unleash their shackles from the kitchen stove.

Which seems to sum up a lot of my meals as a child. I’m not saying they were bad, it’s just how it was. While we rarely ate fast food or takeout, most of our dinners consisted of a traditional meat, frozen vegetables, and potatoes. Fish only appeared on Lenten Fridays, and it was usually courtesy of Mrs. Paul (fish sticks, anyone?).

Side dishes were courtesy of the Green Giant. I don’t think I really had ever seen many vegetables in their fresh, natural form until I was on my own. Who knew that peas came in a pod?

My parents were both thin as well; probably a combination of good genes and the fact that they were both heavy smokers during that era. Since they both had sweet toothes, there was always something sugary in our house. Store-bough Danishes were for breakfast, Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies packed with lunches, and ice cream bars for dessert.

So you’d think I would have grown up to be a chubby adult with bad eating habits. Actually, for about 3 years in my early teens, this was true. Once I hit puberty at age 13, my waistline and thighs expanded as my self esteem shrunk. This prompted me to begin my exploration and somewhat obsession with all things fitness and health.

This long and sometimes pothole-ridden road has led me to who I am today – someone who values a healthy lifestyle more than almost anything, except love, of course. Honestly, I can’t go more than a day without working out – I feel crabby and out of sorts if I don’t. And I love to cook and eat healthy. I’ll choose the long way to cook something from scratch (now known as the trendy “slow food movement”). And I eschew cheap, mass produced foods.

So was it nature or nurture that got me to this point? How much actual influence do parents have over how their childrens’ eating habits turn out? Was I predisposed to eat healthier, despite my upbringing? Why is it that some people crave sweets, while some can resist a dessert even if it’s under their nose?

Raising my own kids, I struggled with that fine line between teaching them to be healthy eaters and turning them into obsessed individuals with a bad relationship with food. Should I let them eat candy? Do I limit it to Halloween or allow them to have treats regularly? Would the fact that I cooked healthy meals like chicken breasts and fresh veggies rather than comfort foods like macaroni and cheese scar them for life?

In the end, I chose moderation over obsession. I cooked the occasional meatloaf and mashed potatoes for the rest of the family, but made healthier roasted fish for myself. We treated them to special visits to the ice cream shop, but did not keep a lot of sweet treats in the house. And remembering the magical fun of Halloween, I did not make a big deal about candy.

There were many times during their teen years that I wondered if I had made the right decision. My fish dinnerss were resoundingly snubbed by all. They would occasionally grumble that we never had good food in the house, like potato chips and pop. Once they were driving, wrappers from MickeyD’s and Portillos were always found in the recycling bin. I thought I’d lost them to the dark side.

In the end, example and moderation worked best for our family. Rather than endlessly lecture them on healthy eating and banish all bad things from their lives, we tried to lead by moderation. We emphasized healthy meals, but let them have the occasional comfort food. My husband and I exercised regularly, did active, fun things with them, and got them into sports.

Now they are adults. And I think they are on their own healthy journeys. My son regularly cooks dinner for us, making healthy and delicious meals like fish tacos, salads, and seafood stews. During a trip to the local grocery store, I was impressed when he bought all organic veggies for the dinner he was making. My stepdaughter is into the organic thing as well, and works out regularly.

So I guess nurture plays a huge role in how we conduct our life. Maybe the influence of my father making fresh salads daily for our dinner when I was in high school was more important than I originally thought. And my grandma preparing everything from scratch – she was a pioneer in today’s local slow food movement.

So let your kids have an occasional treat. Live your life in a healthy way most of the time – you’ll be surprised at how they’ll pick up your habits later.



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