In a world filled with Happy Meals and SpongeBob-shaped fruit snacks, it can be challenging to get kids to eat healthy. Habits that kids learn during childhood, however, can make a lasting difference for their weight and overall health in adulthood. Use these 10 tips to help foster healthy habits within your home!
- Eat meals together. Eating meals as a family is one of the best ways to prevent unhealthy eating habits and weight gain later in life. Meals should be a communal activity whenever possible.
- End the “clean plate club.” Without interference from well-meaning parents, children innately know how hungry or full they are. Offer healthful meals/snacks (with lots of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains) on a regular schedule and then let your kiddos decide how much to eat.
- Avoid distractions during meal times. Turn off the TV, iPad, and cell phones when it’s time to eat. Kids are likely to be more interested in electronics than what’s on their plate, which can cause them to be hungry later on or to eat more than intended.
- Model healthy eating behaviors. Kids learn a lot from adults even when it doesn’t seem like they’re paying attention. Show them how delicious non-processed foods can be by limiting your own consumption of fast-food and sugar-sweetened beverages. Similarly, avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad” (even when talking about your own eating choices) because being overly restrictive can lead kids to overeat those foods when given the opportunity.
- Engage kids in grocery shopping and cooking. Many parents dread shopping with their children – the tantrums, distractions, and unexpected games of hide-and-seek would make any sane person run in the other direction! Turn shopping into a game or keep them engaged by doling out shopping “jobs” (e.g., finding the next item on the grocery list, pushing the cart, or selecting the produce). At home, ask them to do age-appropriate prep so they can see how a meal is made.
- Make it fun to try new foods. Children may take up to 14 times tasting a new food to like it, so don’t give up hope if your child is hesitant to expand their culinary horizons. Family efforts to eat different cuisines show kids how to be open to new flavors and textures. Plan a themed meal (e.g., Mexican, Middle Eastern, or Indian) and have each family member describe what they like about the food. Particularly picky eaters might benefit from gradually transitioning or “chaining” favorite foods toward new alternatives.
- Limit non-water drinks. Water should be offered as the primary source of hydration at all times of day (recommended daily values vary by age and gender) with other drinks provided only on limited occasions. Juice can quickly become a favorite for toddlers’ limited palates but aim for no more than 4 ounces (1/2 cup) per day.
- Learn your kids’ hunger patterns. Teach kids about hunger and fullness so that they can communicate their hunger levels to you. Once your children feel more in tune with their internal signals, you can collaborate to anticipate and prevent hunger-related meltdowns by adjusting your snack/meal schedules accordingly. Additionally, research shows that hungry parents tend to think their kids are also hungry, so be aware of your own needs without projecting them onto your kiddo.
- Teach mindful eating skills. Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of the present moment without being judgmental, and even toddlers can learn how to eat mindfully. Mindfulness helps kids (and adults!) slow down so that the brain can effectively process hunger and satiety signals. Ask kids to describe how food feels in their mouth – is it hot or cold, smooth or rough, crunchy or mushy? Ask them to pay attention to the taste – is it sweet or sour, spicy or bland? Sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound can all be integrated into a mindful meal.
Avoid using food as a reward or punishment. Teach kids that food is a response to hunger, not a bargaining tool. Find alternative rewards for your child’s successes, and seek consequences for inappropriate behavior that don’t involve “going to bed hungry.”
About the Author: Aviva Ariel-Donges, M.S.
|Aviva Ariel-Donges, M.S., is an intern at SRAHEC. She is currently finishing a master’s in public health and a doctorate in clinical health psychology at the University of Florida.|