This past year, so many of my friends, coworkers, and acquaintances have become moms, and two things have become very clear: First, motherhood changes your life and your perspective dramatically. Second, it’s really hard, probably impossible, to understand what being a mom is like when you aren’t one.
One of the many new responsibilities that parenthood brings is learning how to feed a family. That means feeding your kid(s) healthy food and teaching them healthy habits. It means figuring out ways to get that food on the table, despite a super busy schedule and limited time to cook. It can also mean adjusting your own healthy eating habits so that they fit into the totally new lifestyle that comes with being a mom.
All of this can be overwhelming, and it’s definitely not always easy. To help clarify and demystify the healthy eating challenges that motherhood can bring, we asked six registered dietitians to weigh in on how motherhood changed the way they think about food, cooking, eating, and instilling healthy habits in kids. Because, who better to ask than a registered dietitian (you know, an actual healthy eating expert) who know firsthand what it’s actually like to be a mom?
1. Becoming responsible for someone else’s health and eating habits will absolutely change the way you cook.
I definitely spend more time cooking now, as a mom. Taking care of my family and providing them with healthy meals and food is such a huge priority in my life. Before I was a mom, it was easier to just throw together a quick meal or graze along on healthy food during the day. Now, I stay acutely aware of providing healthy family meals. The amount of food I prep is on a totally different scale as well, since I feed two boys and a husband.
—Jenny Beth Kroplin, R.D.
I take it upon myself to ensure that pretty much every night we have a home-cooked, fresh meal for supper. Of course, there are also breakfasts and lunches to worry about…It’s far more work than when I didn’t have kids. But it’s important work.
—Abby Langer, R.D.
2. In fact, you’ll probably have less time for fun, leisurely cooking.
I spend more time on “functional” cooking—getting meals on the table and making sure everyone has enough to eat—and less time cooking for fun. I think that’s just the most productive use of time. As much as I love to cook, I love to see my kids playing sports or doing swim lessons even more, so there’s simply less time for recreational cooking.
—Regan Jones, R.D.
My life used to be much more food centered, and now my child is my priority. Long gone are the days where I’d stroll through a farmer’s market, pick out something fresh, and spontaneously cook a meal. I have to be much more intentional about my time and meal planning now. I’m OK with this shift, but it has taken some time to get used to letting go of the more romantic aspects of food and cooking. I don’t enjoy cooking as much after becoming a mom, because my time is more precious and when I do have a few free hours, I don’t always want to spend them in the kitchen. But we all have to eat, and cooking and healthy eating is still a huge priority of mine, so I make it happen as best I can.
—Kath Younger, R.D.
I used to cook all my meals on the day of, because I love cooking and I love eating freshly prepared food. Since having children, I’ve had to rely more on “reheat and eat” meals from my weekend meal prep.
—Jessica Beacom, R.D.
3. Getting organized with meal planning and prepping is extremely helpful—but don’t expect that things will always go according to plan.
I set aside a few hours on the weekend to meal prep—mostly things I can freeze like soups, chili, pancakes, waffles, and meatballs—so I always have a backup plan that I can quickly reheat and eat when life gets really hectic. I also like to prep a bunch of vegetables for roasting, stir-frying, snacking, or adding to salads later in the week. I take advantage of the slow cooker or pressure cooker to cook up a couple different proteins, like a roast or a whole chicken. These reheat well, can be combined with just about any side dish, and you can get a few meals out of each one.
Even with this organized prep, I often find myself juggling around the meal plan or rummaging through the freezer or pantry for something I can quickly pull together (frozen vegetables and pre-cooked proteins are a lifesaver in these moments). It also means that foods we normally wouldn’t have eaten before (frozen french fries, organic chicken strips, etc.) will make it on the menu from time to time.
4. It’s important to remember that every kid and every family is different when it comes to food (and everything else).
Parenting is hard and involves so much more than just what your child eats. The idea that one nutrition recommendation fits all and fits every family is oversimplified. Yes, there are some universal truths—fruits and veggies are healthy, eating meals together as a family is a good idea, etc.—but overall, families have to live in the framework of what works for them. And sometimes, that simply means making a small change like taking soda off the table at dinner and adding in a glass of milk or water. Most importantly, moms and dads need encouragement, helpful easy tips, and less guilt. I know very few parents who are doing it perfectly, but I also know that most want the best for their families. Not doing it all perfectly is OK.
5. Most kids will flat out refuse to eat certain foods, sometimes or all the time. This isn’t a reflection of your own healthy eating habits or your parenting skills.
I thought I knew everything about feeding kids before I had children. The reality is, kids are strong-willed and have their own preferences. Assuming they’re always going to love what you love really ignores their individualism. Sometimes, they end up loving the healthy food I give them, but it isn’t always the food I love, or even the food I think they’ll love. What I’ve noticed is that we have to explore (together) what appeals to them and what doesn’t.
— Regan Jones
Before I was a mom, I’d preach things like, “It takes 10 to 15 exposures until a child likes a food!” and, “Don’t be a short-order cook for your kid!” Now I realize that these are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. It takes some kids years to accept certain foods, and every day is different—some nights, I’m heating up mac ‘n’ cheese, and that’s OK.
— Deanna Seagrave-Daly, R.D.
6. While you can’t (and shouldn’t!) force your kids to eat healthy foods, you can be patient and keep trying.
I know that all children go through picky stages and won’t always eat what you put in front of them, so I’ve tried to wait out the storm and know that with time he will learn to eat most healthy foods. He’s 5 now and we’re still working on it, but we’ve made huge strides of progress since the terrible twos!
I have learned to always give children numerous chances to eat healthy foods. Many times kids will resist the vegetable group, or certain other food groups. It can be easy to give up and stop trying, but it’s my experience that a little persistence is key in getting kids to accept certain foods.
—Jenny Beth Kroplin
I’ve learned that when you start kids off eating healthy, they’re probably more likely to accept healthy foods moving forward. My kids actually get excited about broccoli now.
7. Getting kids involved in the process of meal planning and cooking is a great way to get them to try new things.
To me, exposing kids to grocery shopping, getting them in the kitchen, and encouraging (but never forcing!) them to try new foods is more valuable than following strict rules or stressing out over making sure they’re eating five fruits and vegetables every day. My daughter is now 10 years old, and we try and cook dinner together at least once a week. She gets excited to look through her favorite kids’ cookbooks to pick out recipes, make a grocery list, and really be a part of the process. She doesn’t always eat what we make, but I know in the long run this will stick with her and she’ll come around as she gets older. At least, that’s what I’m counting on!
8. Teaching good eating habits without labeling foods as “good” or “bad” is important, but not always easy.
I’ve made it a point to teach my kids that there’s room for all foods in a healthy diet. They eat mostly healthy food, but they have a sweet treat every day. I don’t even bat an eye about it, because I think we should normalize all foods; if sweets are forbidden, kids will just end up eating more of them once they have access. That happened to me.
I have always said it’s easier to add than subtract, so I’ve always focused on getting my son to eat a wider variety of food, rather than focusing on cutting down on less-healthy foods, like dessert. There is such a fine balance between being the grown-up in charge and not wanting to control or disappoint him when it comes to sweets, so it’s always a challenge to navigate these choices.
I allow for “fun foods” every day with my kids, but I do place limits. Just like I think it’s important to model good sleep behavior by enforcing bedtimes, I believe my role as a parent is to set guidelines in place that help them understand how less nutritive foods should fit into their day.
9. There might be times when healthy eating is the last thing on your mind, and that’s OK.
I’ve always eaten pretty healthily, but there was a period of time when I had a toddler and I was pregnant with my second daughter, and another when the girls were super young, that I didn’t have energy to even think about putting healthy meals together. For a while there, my eating habits declined, and so did everyone else’s in our house. So what, though? I think that’s OK…I mean, I was incredibly busy, not to mention exhausted! I’m happy to say that this isn’t the case now that the girls are a little bit older.