Michelle Obama Doesn't Want You to Stress About Raising Healthy Kids

michelle obama
First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a roundtable with online women’s outlets to discuss her book “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America” in the White House Kitchen Garden, June 5, 2012.
(Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Yesterday I had the privilege, along with five other reporters, of sitting down and chatting with Michelle Obama at a picnic table in the White House Kitchen Garden. We talked mostly about her new (and first) book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America (her husband says it's good), the power of growing your own food, and how to get our kids (and ourselves) to eat more healthfully.


Mrs. Obama is gorgeous, gracious, very funny, down-to-earth, and of course, one of the most powerful women in the world. But, like most of us, she's just a mom trying to raise her kids in the healthiest way she knows how. Apparently, being the First Lady of the United States doesn't up your ante in the mom department -- when the veggies go on the dinner plate, the groans are heard 'round the White House.

"My kids are the kids that they'll go in the kitchen and see what's for dinner, and their mood -- and their love -- will be directly connected with what's on the table," says the First Lady. "It's like, snap peas -- shrivel."

Mrs. Obama by no means holds herself out as an expert when it comes to getting our kids to exercise and eat right, and she isn't being all "preachy," trying to tell moms what they must and mustn't do. She's simply a mom who cares not only about the health of her own children, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 10, but about the health of all of our children (not a bad thing considering obesity rates among kids ages 2 to 5 have doubled). Like us, the First Lady faces her fair share of challenges in trying to instill good, lifelong eating habits in her daughters, and she's come up with some great ideas that we all can try.

Here are but a few we chatted about:

1. Eat at least one meal together as a family ...

A lot of times my discussions about health happen around the dinner table -- with, "Oh, I don’t like this vegetable," and "Well, let's talk about it," and what does this vegetable do versus that, and why is it important to have a vegetable, and why are we -- because, as I tell people, I like to talk to my kids about the whys. It doesn’t work as much to just say, eat your vegetables. Putting it in a broader context of why is it important, and what did you do today right before your track meet when you felt really tired; what did you have for lunch, how much water did you drink -- that’s directly correlated to how you felt in your track meet, and tomorrow, try to eat a better lunch and drink more water throughout the day; see what your performance is like, let's talk about it at dinner.


2. Talk to your kids about why eating healthy is important in a way that makes sense to them ...

I talk to my girls about this all the time, and I tell kids this -- I say, "Would you ever think about watering a plant with soda?" And they think, "Well, of course, not, that's silly. The idea of that is just ridiculous." But I say a plant is a living thing and it requires care. You can't forget it. You have to water it. You have to take care of it, or it dies. And it’s more fragile so it will respond more quickly to our abuse. But the body -- our bodies are going through the same process. We’re just more resilient as human beings so we can drink soda after soda after soda and it may take years, but something will happen. We are slowly eroding ourselves. So it takes time to nurture your bodies. 


3. Start teaching good eating habits now ...

Kids adjust their taste buds to what they eat. So the more processed foods they eat, the more fast foods they eat, the more they will crave a certain level of sodium. So then when you start giving them regular food, they will initially rebel because it’s not salty enough, it’s not sweet enough. The sweetness isn’t that artificial sweetener that they’re used to. But the minute you start weaning them off of it like we’ve done with juices -- we don’t use store-bought juices. Juices are fresh juices. And they have trouble going back to the store-bought juice because it’s too sweet, so they have to water it down.


4. Fill them up on healthy food and drinks before allowing snacks ...

Malia loves juice. So she was kind of really thinking about her juice habit, because she’d come home from school -- and she’s very active so I don’t really worry about her; she’s in two, three sports and she’s going all the time. But I said, "Why don’t you try drinking water first? Just drink a glass of water so that your thirst is quenched and then whatever you need later will be -- you can cover that with juice." That was just an idea. I said, "Just give it a try, because you’re really thirsty, and you’re going to be thirsty if you’re not drinking water, and you don’t drink enough water. So when you’re really thirsty, drink a glass of water, wait a few minutes and then if you want some juice, then get some juice." And she found that she was drinking less juice.  

6. Grow your own veggies (if you can) ...

I am all for if you can't do it, try, and make it fun. Because if it's not fun, then it's a headache, and if it's a headache for you, then your kids are going to feel that and vegetables will be a horrible concept in your household. And that’s what we don’t want. There are people with green thumbs, and they have the time and the interest -- and that’s a good thing. But people can also find gardens in their communities. That’s another way to think about it -- maybe you don’t start your own garden, but you start working with your school and their garden; or your community center, and you do it that way. Oftentimes if you live in a community with a good farmers' market, they've got those little test kitchens and kids can try the vegetables there and see how they're prepared, and they can be a part of picking out what they want to try.

7. Let them eat cake ...

My philosophy is if you’re eating what you’re supposed to eat 80, 90 percent of the time -- I don’t want my kids to have to worry about food. If we have a birthday party, if we’re going out or if they’re going out with friends, I don’t want them counting calories and looking at anything. But I do encourage them -- they’re going to camp this summer -- and I do say, think about how you should feed yourself when I’m not there. Because it’s not about now, when you’re 10 and you’re 14, it’s about when you go to college. Because I do tell them, when you’re in college you can’t eat a bagel and cream cheese every day for every meal. 


8. Don't say "don't" -- at least all the time ...

It’s never a no, a don’t; it’s like, well, think about this. Give this a try. This is why you’re feeling this way. This is why your body is reacting that way. See what happens. Because if I did the opposite and said, you can’t have juice, you shouldn’t do this -- there are few real don’ts. It doesn’t work. The don’ts in our house -- we don’t have dessert every night. And part of that is that if I were at home, we wouldn’t have dessert every night because I don’t bake, I didn’t go shopping, things ran out. We live in the White House -- there is always a pie. And that is dangerous, so we have to sort of say, you know what, dessert is for the weekends. 


9. Don't turn your kitchen into a restaurant ...

You can find yourself popping in some chicken nuggets for one kid and then doing the pizza for another, and then maybe opening a can of noodles for the other. So you can, as mothers today, cook four meals -- which is ridiculous. And children get used to the fact that I should be able to have what I want. When we were younger it was impossible. So your mother cooked a meal, and she cooked it for your father and what he would eat, and then you ate what was there. And if you didn’t eat, you were done. That was it. But that’s changed a bit, because now we can be a little more short-order cook-ish because there’s fast food. There’s a whole lot of options that weren’t there. So I’m trying to remember that in those rules and just say, this is it. This is dinner. There’s no need for you at 10 to say, I won’t eat this and I won’t eat that, because you can. You’re not going to starve yourself. You’ll be fine. Eat the vegetables. Suck it up. Just get on with it. That’s really life. 

10. Don't stress ...

I don’t want this book or anything we're doing around nutrition to be one more worrisome thing for a mother to think that, if I'm not doing this, then I'm not being a good mother ... but I think it's important for people to know how folks are doing it at all levels. If they try and fail, it's like, "Oh, I'm a failure, my kids will never have vegetables and now I'm a horrible mother." Because we tend to do that to ourselves. So don’t do that.


Thanks, Mrs. Obama, that's great advice!

What's your secret to get your kids to eat healthfully?


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