Our earliest memories are tied to food; many cultural and familial traditions revolve around the preparation and enjoyment of food. However, it can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task to track new nutritional information, honor your own family’s traditions around food, cater to your child’s food preferences and provide healthy balanced meals.
Here are some tips to help you encourage healthy eating habits with your child.
Start early and expose your child to a variety of foods. Providing plenty of choices will allow your child to develop a taste for new foods over time. As children get older, allow them to choose recipes from cookbooks and make meal preparation family time. Encouraging your child to explore food options will help to build the foundation for healthy appreciation of food.
Plan ahead. When possible try to plan meals in advance. This helps children to anticipate what they will eat and helps you shop for food that will be needed. Planning meals can also help reduce visits to fast food restaurants where you don’t have control over the nutrition content of meals.
Shop smart and take your children grocery shopping. Most of the food you bring into the home should be healthy choices that your child can eat without a lot of monitoring from you. Grocery shopping trips with your child can be a great opportunity to teach your children about nutrition. Talk about the types of foods they like, and identify alternatives to foods that are high in fat or empty calories. While shopping, spend most of your time at the edges of the supermarket where you will typically find the fresh produce, dairy, grains, lean meat and fish.
Limit snacking. Most children love snacks. Having a healthy assortment of snacks available, including fruits, vegetables, and low fat-granola, provides your child with the energy they need between meals and can help your child eat in moderation at meal times. Too many snacks that are high in calories, sugar or fat can disrupt a child’s eating schedule. As often as you can, plan small snacks in between meals to ensure your child will be hungry at mealtimes.
Replace sugary drinks with water. Although some juice, mostly 100% fruit juice have some nutritional benefits, most juice can be high in sugar and should be consumed in moderation. Also, soda and other sugar based drinks have been linked to childhood obesity. As much as possible, replace sugary drinks with water. Remember to check the ingredients on energy drinks and other sports drinks as some may contain caffeine, a stimulant that the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend for children.
Be an active role model. Children learn their eating habits from their parents and family members. If your child hears you say “Veggies are gross,” they may learn to dislike vegetables; if they hear you say “Cheesecake is so bad for you,” while you eat a large slice, they may learn to feel guilty about their eating. Your child is always watching and listening! It’s important for your child to see you eat healthy food and practice moderation with ‘treat’ food that contain lots of sugar, are high in fat, or have low nutritional value.
Don’t pick on picky eaters. It can take as many as ten opportunities before a child will try and start to like a new food. This is normal! You do not need to force your child to eat a new food; presenting it multiple times and eating it yourself are great ways to introduce the new food to your child Most children have a few foods that are favorites and may go through periods of time when they eat from those few foods. Allow your child their preferences while encouraging them to try new foods. If your child refuses a food ask "why". If he or she says “I don’t like it” you can say “that’s ok if you didn’t like it today. Maybe tomorrow you’ll like it!”
Encourage family meal times. Pleasant and engaging conversation during family mealtime can help your child develop healthy eating habits. When children are able to enjoy their meals, take their time and eat slowly, they are more likely to feel and be aware of their body’s natural signals that they are full. When you can, avoid unpleasant or stressful situations at mealtimes; this may cause children to eat faster, ignoring their bodies natural signal for fullness and to associate food with stressful times.
Try not to use food as a reward for children or withhold food for punishment. The goal is to encourage healthy eating habits and withholding food may cause a child to feel anxious and to fear ever being hungry. Children may then overeat when they are presented with food. Similarly, using food as a reward such as a dessert for good grades sends the message that sugary foods are better than healthy food.
If you have concerns contact your pediatrician. It’s generally not recommended for children to be on weight loss diets. If you have concerns about your child’s weight please see your pediatrician.
Take away thoughts. Encourage your child to have a healthy relationship with food by providing balanced nutritional choices, opportunities to explore new foods and encourage them to enjoy their favorite sugary snacks in moderation. The goal is to help your child develop the kind of positive thoughts and habits around the importance of food which will help them maintain a healthy weight throughout their lifetime.
Here are some great resources if you would like additional information:
HealthyChildren.org - Nutrition
Maintaining a Healthy Weight and Dieting
Budget Friendly Ideas
This article was compiled by Rayna Charles, One Tough Job Manager, and reviewed by Heather Torrey, BS in Dietetics.