8 Key Tips for Fostering Healthy Eating Habits in Kids

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As a parent, you desire to give your children the best. You want them to be well-mannered, happy, and healthy. Eating good food is part of that equation for health. Sometimes it’s hard to decide what to prepare. Is your child a picky eater? Are they eating enough? Why do they crave soft drinks more than water? Most parents have these concerns so don’t feel alone. In this article, you will learn how to help your children develop healthy eating habits and attitudes about food. Let’s begin.

Why Healthy Eating Habits Matters

You may wonder why this topic is important. The food habits children form will follow them into adulthood. Lifelong beliefs about food start before your child is 1 year of age. Research shows that eating habits also impact other areas of a child’s development. Plus it determines the lifetime risks for diseases like obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Babies are born with the instinctive understanding of when they are hungry or full. One of your goals is to preserve those cues so that children learn when to stop eating. 

There is also a great framework show to help children eat healthily. According to researcher Lynne Allison Daniels, “This framework has also been termed the “Division of Responsibility” [39] (“parent provide, child decide”) and argues that parents are responsible for providing safe, developmentally appropriate, nutritious food, while the child is responsible for deciding whether and how much they eat.”

Show Them The Way

The first tip for creating a great relationship with food is to model healthy eating habits. Children tend to mimic what they see rather than what they hear. Consider your relationship with food and if you want those beliefs to be passed on. Also, consider your food choices. Do you eat a few servings of fruits and vegetables daily? Do you show self-love for your body? Food messaging is complex and comes from upbringing, culture, and advertising. These all impact your child’s understanding of food, so start with your habits to make effective changes. 

Explain What Food Does

It’s important for kids to know the purpose of food is to help them live happy healthy lives. Food is broken down into important parts that our body uses to fuel us. It helps us do the things we want like play, do well in school, and live. This approach helps children have a good reason behind why we eat. Avoid labeling food as good or bad.

Registered dietician Jennifer Anderson says it’s important to focus more on health and not weight. She also discusses signs to look for with eating disorders. We don’t want the focus to be on maintaining a certain weight or body shape. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against children using scales at home. If you are looking for develop healthy eating habits, check out our helpful tips here.

Provide a Variety of Foods

You may be worried about your child being a picky eater. It’s normal for children to develop neophobia, a fear of new foods. Studies show that exposing children to new foods at a young age helps them become comfortable. Don’t be discouraged if they zip their lips around new vegetables or fruits. On average, it takes 5 or more times of exposure for them to accept a new food. Interestingly enough, selective eating doesn’t affect weight and nutritional status. Encourage but don’t force your children to eat new foods, according to the division of responsibility framework mentioned earlier. Limited food portions are also associated with better health outcomes.

Provide fruits and vegetables with each meal and snack time. Research shows most adolescents don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. These food groups provide essential nutrients for growing bodies. Food options also depend on your income level, cultural dishes, and food availability. In time, your children will come to accept different foods and this helps them have a healthy relationship with food throughout their life.

Encourage Breakfast

It may be cliche but breakfast is an essential meal of the day. Studies have shown that skipping breakfast was associated with worse health in both children and adults. The correlation was more significant in children ages 10 and older. Breakfast is an opportunity to meet daily requirements of nutrients, jumpstart metabolism, and help them concentrate during the day. Children who eat breakfast outperform their classmates on test scores too.

There are several reasons for skipping breakfast. Some children don’t like regular breakfast foods or don’t feel hungry until later. Girls are more likely to skip breakfast because they want to control weight. Whatever the reason, encourage your children to still have a morning meal. You can meal prep the night before if you have limited time in the mornings. Smoothies are a great way to add in fiber, fats, and vegetables.

Eat Together as a Family

Want to know a fun way to nurture healthy eating habits in your children? Family meal time. Research shows that there are numerous benefits to eating with guardians and other family members. It positively impacts their emotional well-being, builds familial relationships, and helps them develop healthy eating patterns into adulthood. It’s important to eat together without the distraction of cell phones and TV. Children eat more calories when they are not focused on other things besides their meals. See this article if you are looking for ways to make dinner preparation easier.

Slow Down With Fast Food

Fast food tends to be higher in salt, saturated fats, and sugars. Children who eat out often develop a preference for these foods. Those foods are also lower in quality nutrients. In contrast, home-cooked meals are typically healthier. Children miss out on those vitamins and minerals when they eat fast food.  These foods also affect your child’s behavior and moods.

Buy Groceries Together

There are many benefits to taking your children to the grocery store: from learning how to interact with people to practicing math to bonding as a family. The variety of fruits, vegetables, and other foods will peak your little one’s interest. Children are more likely to eat food if they get to prepare it. Let them pick a vegetable or ingredient to prepare for dinner with you. Grocery shopping gets kids excited about trying new foods. This is a wonderful opportunity to spend in the produce aisle, selecting whole foods that nourish their bodies.

Moderation is Key 

We know which foods improve health. We know that children should be encouraged to eat those things. There is a temptation however to restrict all forms of desserts, snack foods, or fast foods. This often has a paradoxical effect of increasing their desire for these foods. It’s better to eat them in small quantities from time to time. Don’t use food as a reward or punishment either as that makes them crave it more. We want children to develop a good relationship with food and recognize that some things are eaten daily and others are eaten occasionally. Then they won’t fear certain foods or binge on them.

Be Patient With Yourself

Raising healthy and happy children takes intentionality. It’s not easy to make sure they have nutritious healthy meals every day. Aim for preparing healthy foods the majority of the time and don’t worry about the 20% of the time that they eat snacks or convenient meals. You’ve learned several tips to help them develop healthy eating habits. Try eating one family meal together each week. Plan a grocery list and allow your children to grab a tomato or avocado. Teaching your children is a dynamic process that requires dialogue every so often. In time, they will grow to love good food.

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Dr. Barbara Quaye, Pharm.D. is a pharmacist and freelance writer in Texas. She enjoys reading novels and singing.

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