How To Get Kids to Eat Healthy

… When Your Ex Feeds Them Junk

by Michelle Leath

I like to think of myself as the Chief Nourisher of my family. It was always my job to plan, prepare and serve the meals and snacks for my kids, and formerly my ex.

Ever since they were babies, I’ve taken pride in making sure my kids get good quality food and avoid excessive fast food and junk. I choose to eat healthy myself – after all I am health and food psychology coach – so I don’t buy a lot of pre-packaged “kid” foods like corn dogs and sugary cereals.

Getting Your Kids to Eat Healthy is About BalanceIn grade school, while their friends were busting out overpriced/under-nourishing “Lunchables,” my kids were noshing on natural PB&J on wheat with a side of apple slices. To this day (they are now 13 and almost 16) I still make them a lunch every morning and although I am constantly peppered with requests for the drive-thru, I stay strong and insist on them eating something we have at home that bears my stamp of approval.

So as a totally admitted (and recovering) control freak, it has been a challenge relinquishing my nutritional power of attorney as I share custody with my ex – who doesn’t share the same, shall we say, “discriminating tastes” around feeding the kids.

When we first separated, we took turns staying in the family home so that the kids didn’t have to move back and forth. I rapidly became aware of what he was serving as I continued to find fast food wrappers when I returned, or when he did the grocery shopping for school lunches. (I’d find sleeves of those wafer sandwich cookies… I mean what ARE those made of?)

In any case, it quickly became evident that we did not share the same nutritional standards.

My first response? To roll my eyes and admonish my kids about eating that kind of junk. Unfortunately that didn’t go over so well.  In fact, it just pointed out to them how cool Dad was for getting them what they really want!

Step 2, admonish my ex for buying that kind of junk. Also not so well received. He has a hard enough time nourishing himself without someone cooking for him. He’s doing his best with the skills, information, time and money available to him. (Yes, unfortunately it sometimes costs a little more to plan and purchase healthy meals).

Finally, I decided to try another approach.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through divorce it’s how to pick my battles. So I decided to let go. Now that doesn’t mean I’ve given up on having my kids eat healthy. It means that I’ve decided not to draw attention (and thereby create increased attraction) to the discrepancy in how my ex and I shop.

It’s a simple fact that whatever is forbidden becomes more appealing. I had friends in college who went on a junk food bender when they finally broke away from their natural foods-obsessed parents. I realized that if I was to engage in an all-out struggle with my ex’s food choices that I would never win.

Plus, because my kids are teens, they are also influenced by their friends and lifestyle. The kids hang out at the local Sonic Burger or McDonalds after school, so again any added pressure or restriction just feeds their rebellion.

Instead I’ve adopted an approach of leading by example.

I continue to choose and emphasize the benefits of healthy eating in my home. I take some heat for my organic raisin bran and Kashi cookies, and my kids often implore me to be more like other parents and get “good” food (which apparently means potato chips and Pepsi). I give them healthy breakfast options. I buy organic milk, lean meat and produce. They don’t know the difference. But I also always keep a few desserts in the house – we all deserve a little sweetness now and then.

I also point out to my kids how good your body feels when you eat fresh fruit, or when you enjoy a home-cooked soup. I point out to my daughter how much better her skin looks, or to my son how much more energy he has for sports, when he’s making healthy food choices. I make sure that my house has plenty of healthy options for them so I know that they are getting good nutrition at least 50 percent of the time. And I encourage them to ask their dad to buy some of their favorite healthy foods as well.

So if you are struggling with a junk-food junkie ex, here’s my advice:

  1. Depending on your relationship, talk with him about why it’s important to give the kids healthy choices. Offer to help him with suggestions or a list of favorites or easy recipe or snack ideas. It’s very likely he’s just totally out of his element and is responding to the kids’ requests in the moment. (But release any expectations about how he’ll respond, for your own sanity!)
  2. If your kids are little, it’s actually easier because they are less susceptible to peer pressure. Emphasize the importance of vitamins and how healthy eating helps their bodies grow up strong. Keep your home stocked with healthy options and engage them in the preparation and cooking. Make it fun for them to eat “growing food.” Have them make a list of their favorite growing foods for Dad.
  3. If your kids are older, try the vanity approach! Educate them about how a healthy diet can control acne, make their hair shinier, or make them stronger for sports. Teach them how to prepare simple meals after school instead of going to the drive-thru. (Try make-your-own pizzas: whole-wheat English muffins or tortillas, tomato sauce, mozzarella, turkey pepperoni and veggies). As they become more independent they can do this at their father’s as well.

Ultimately, the best approach to creating a healthy lifestyle is to focus on ADDING in healthier options, rather than just TAKING AWAY the unhealthy.

Let go of your need to control it all and just be an example.

All you have to be is good enough!

Michelle Leath is a professional life coach and food psychology coach and the founder of Also a divorced mother of two teens, Michelle helps other divorced women create a new life of nourishment, possibility and purpose.