10 Tips to Teach Kids Healthy Eating
1. Be a good role model
Most of the parents we know complain that their children refuse to eat healthfully and search for magic recipes that will put an end to mealtime madness. However, most of us are so accustomed to eating out, grabbing a fast food something or other on a lunch break, and buying prepared foods in the grocery store that it can be difficult to know what food is truly healthy. In order to be good role models, we must educate ourselves first and then practice what we preach.
2. Take your kids shopping with you
We don’t all live near farms or farmer’s markets, so it’s not easy for us or our children to feel a connection with good, whole, unprocessed foods. One way to help them learn is to take them grocery shopping with you. Make sure the trip is one where you’re not in a hurry and then take the time to talk about unprocessed foods—in the produce, meat, and fish departments, for example. Take home a fruit or vegetable that your child expresses interest in and let him try it so he can make his own decisions.
3. Make mealtime special
There are lots of fun things we can do to make mealtime special. First and foremost, sit down and enjoy your food. Take time to savor flavors. Children should not eat while walking around. We understand that some young children have difficulty sitting for the entire meal. In those cases, we recommend allowing the child to get up once or twice, while encouraging the child to sit, not stand, at the table when he or she comes back to eat. For children who are able to understand, explain to them that mealtimes are special family times and it is important to the family that everyone sits down to eat and talk together. Make a ritual out of dinner and give everyone a special task—maybe even let each child have one night a week to plan and help make dinner. Have the kids set the table. Cloth napkins and real glasses set a more formal tone and are better for the environment – and you can talk about sustainability as part of healthy choices we all can make. Candles can set a calming tone for the meal and show kids that mealtime is special.
4. Don’t be a short order cook
I’m sure you’ve found yourself making one meal for the adults in the house and another for the kids – or even one for each kid! Children take their time warming up to new things and if you keep giving them the old stand-bys, they’re not going to branch out and explore new foods. Be patient. Most research says that it takes an average of 10 to 12 times before a child will try a new food unless they are involved in cooking and gardening projects. Learning about food and cooking in an active way helps breed a sense of culinary adventure. Make the same dinner for everyone in the family while taking some time to put some foods on the plate that your children like, and then add something new. If they don’t touch it don’t worry about it and definitely don’t make an argument out of it. Try again the next week and again the following week. Eventually they’ll surprise you by at least tasting that new food.
5. Don’t buy into marketing for kids
Kids don’t need frozen chicken nuggets, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and pizza to keep them happy. And those kinds of foods certainly don’t make for healthy children. Avoid preprocessed foods and start talking to your children early in their lives about what constitutes a good diet and why it’s important for them to avoid foods like the ones mentioned above. Even a three year old can grasp why sodas aren’t good for you and why we don’t eat foods with lots of fat every meal. Highly processed foods are loaded with chemicals, synthetic fats, additives, artificial sweeteners, and food colorings. Kids love brightly colored foods because advertising trains them to believe that those foods are kid foods (kids see 10,000 commercials a year!).
6. Don’t use food as rewards, bribes, or punishments
Okay, okay, we know. M&Ms have a long history as the greatest bribe candy on earth for potty training—even the most health conscious mom will break down and try M&Ms during that oh-so-critical stage of development. Don’t give in! Stickers work just as well and you won’t be setting a precedent for using food as a bribe or reward as your child gets older. Sure, it’s okay to take the kids out for ice cream or frozen yogurt after a good (or even a bad) soccer game, just don’t use it as an incentive for a good game. On the flip side, don’t punish children for not eating certain foods—it will only foster a negative relationship between you and your children, not to mention your children and food.
7. Let kids help in the kitchen
Encourage your children to help out in the kitchen. Invest in a stool or a child-height counter that allows your children to see what you are doing and even help out. If a child is interested in doing more in the kitchen, don’t automatically assume that she can’t or that the task will be too dangerous. Know your child’s limits and help her achieve success by providing support and encouragement in a safe setting. Kids love eating food they created. Involve your child in the cooking or snack preparation and they will be more likely to eat new foods, including fruits and vegetables.
8. Encourage your children to move their bodies
A healthy food plan is only part of the equation. In order to stay healthy, our bodies need exercise. Studies have shown that vigorous exercise boosts the immune system and increases our ability to concentrate. Help your children find physical activities they enjoy and encourage them to get outside to play as often as possible.Identifying age-appropriate activities will make exercise more fun. Every once in a while a family hike makes a great change of pace for all ages. As with eating, a parent’s good example can make the difference for a child. Make sure exercise is a part of your daily routine, too!
9. Remember – you’re the responsible adult
Adults need to set the boundaries for kids because, left to their own devices, kids may choose salty and sugary processed foods over fresh, healthier choices. Children actually do much better when they know that they have boundaries and limits. Listen to your child, but set clear limits and guide them towards the healthier option.
10. Love and accept your child no matter what!
Love and accept your child at any weight, size or shape. Childhood growth is unpredictable at best. There’s a lot of pressure in our society to be thin and you might be tempted to put your child on a diet during a growth spurt, but that won’t be helpful and may even cause emotional and physical damage. Instead, help your child maintain his weight until his height catches up. The best way to do that is to teach good healthy eating habits.