Many of our earliest memories are tied to food; cultural and familial traditions revolve around the preparation and enjoyment of food. But it can sometimes feel overwhelming to track new nutritional information, honor your family’s food traditions, cater to your child’s food preferences, and provide healthy, balanced meals.
Here are some tips to help you encourage your child to develop healthy eating habits.
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 a part of family time. Encouraging your child to explore food options will help to build the foundation for a healthy and balanced appreciation of food.
Plan ahead. When possible, try to plan meals in advance. This helps children anticipate what they will eat and helps you shop for the food you will need. Planning meals can also help reduce visits to fast food restaurants, where you don’t have control over the nutrition value of meals.
Take your children grocery shopping. Most of the food you bring into the home should be healthy; your child should be able to eat it without your having to monitor consumption all the time. Trips to the grocery store with your child can be a great opportunity to teach your child about nutrition. Talk about the types of foods he or she likes, 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 he or she needs between meals and can help him or her eat in moderation at meal times. But too many snacks that are high in calories, sugar, or fat can disrupt a child’s eating schedule. Plan small snacks in between meals to ensure that your child will be hungry at mealtimes.
Replace sugary drinks with water. Although 100% fruit juice has some nutritional benefits, most juice is high in sugar and should be consumed in moderation. Soda and other sugary drinks have been linked to childhood obesity. Replace sugary drinks with water as much as possible. Remember to check the ingredients on energy drinks and other sports drinks; some 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,” he or she may learn to dislike vegetables. If your child hears you say, “Cheesecake is so bad for you,” while you eat a large slice, your child may learn to feel guilty about his or her eating. Your child is always watching and listening! It’s important for your child to see you eating healthy food and practicing moderation with special treats 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 is a great way to introduce new foods to your child. Most children have a few favorite foods and may go through periods of time when they only want to eat those few foods. Allow your child his or her preferences while encouraging him or her 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, “It’s okay if you didn’t like it today. Maybe tomorrow you’ll like it!”
Encourage family meal times. Pleasant and engaging conversation during family meal time 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 be aware of their body’s natural signals that they are full. When you can, avoid unpleasant or stressful situations at mealtimes; these may cause children to eat faster, ignoring their bodies’ natural signals and causing them to associate food with stress.
Try not to use food as a reward or withhold food as a 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 put 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 encouraging him or her to enjoy sugary snacks in moderation. The goal is to help your child develop the kind of positive thoughts and habits around the importance of food that will help him or her maintain a healthy body for life.
Here are some great resources if you would like additional information:
HealthyChildren.org - Nutrition
Maintaining a Healthy Weight and Dieting
This article was compiled by Rayna Charles, One Tough Job Manager, and reviewed by Heather Torrey, R.D.