Teaching Healthy Eating Habits to Children
We all know by now how important proper nutrition is for our children’s development. It can be challenging to get them to establish healthy eating habits in our fast-food culture. But with patience and diligence, we can help them lay a foundation of healthy eating decisions that will carry them through their lives.
Make It Fun and Abundant
Teaching children to eat healthfully is most effective when it is made into something fun. If healthy eating feels like a chore or “have to,” it will more difficult to create positive habits. Play interactive games with your children that teach the different food groups and nutrients.
Prepare colorful and interesting dishes with a mix of familiar and new foods. Turn mealtime into playtime whenever possible by engaging your child in the selection and preparation process. Some of my favorite memories of my girls growing up were letting them “help” me make dinner.
Also, be careful to avoid turning food into a punishment or reward. Saying things like “You can have ice cream after you eat your broccoli” devalues the vegetable and makes the sugary fat seem like it is something worth earning – better than the vegetable.
And avoid depriving children of food when they have misbehaved, this can instill a fear of food scarcity and set them up for overeating at future meals.
Consistency is Key
Children thrive with structure. Serving meals at the same time each day helps the development of their metabolism. It also helps them know that food will always be available when needed, so they can eat appropriate amounts. Healthy snacks are okay if your child is truly hungry, but whenever possible stick to consistent mealtimes.
In It Together
Establishing healthy eating habits is something you do with your child, not for your child. Involve your children in the meal planning process whenever possible. Take them to the farmer’s market or grocery store with you, and notice what attracts them. Let them participate in the creation of the meal – especially with new foods – and they are more likely to enjoy eating it.
Eat your meals together, sitting down at a table. Make meals a pleasant time of nourishment and connection, and save discipline or intense teachings for another time. Do not have the TV, computer, or other electronic devices on or around.
Encourage your children to eat slowly. This will help them tune into their bellies and notice when they are truly hungry and when they are actually full. Chewing thoroughly aids digestion and will help them feel more satisfied by an appropriate amount of food.
This is a natural way to promote healthy portion sizes. You will still want to monitor how much food your children eat at each meal. Encourage them to eat only to satisfy hunger, not just for the taste or emotional comfort.
The Power of Choice
With older children it is helpful to have a wide variety of healthy foods available at home. Let your kids plan meals or choose their snacks from an array of nutritious options. This works best if you have only healthy food in your kitchen, and your children are old enough to understand the basic nutrients they need. It can be very empowering for children to get to eat what they want, enjoy it, and know it is healthy for them.
Sweeter than Sugar
Sugar gets special mention because it is very detrimental to children’s health. A diet high in added sugar contributes to childhood obesity and a host of diseases. Consuming sugar makes it hard to establish healthy eating habits, because of how it affects the body’s blood sugar levels and cravings.
While whole fruit is a nutritious part of a balanced diet, white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, rice syrup, and evaporated cane juice are all not worth the damage. It is best to avoid sugar altogether whenever possible. Instead, find ways to bring sweetness into your children’s lives without involving food, such as playing with them, practicing Yoga together, or making art together.
With care and persistence, it is possible to help your children establish healthy eating habits. I am so grateful for the care I took teaching my daughters about food, and I know their health as adults was encouraged by that foundation.
Stick to consistent mealtimes, involve children in the process, and invite them to truly savor their food. Let it be a fun part of their growing up, and your children will learn to love eating healthfully.