Teaching Kids Healthy Eating Habits
Part 2 of 2
By Marina la Grange
Disclaimer: The medical and/or nutritional information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Kids need to be taught to enjoy eating healthy food. Unfortunately, the reverse is usually true for unhealthy food: kids have an innate love for unhealthy treats and they crave these whether they are hungry or not (see Hungry or not, kids will eat treats for research on this).
The previous blog post, Teaching Kids Healthy Eating Habits Part I, discussed the importance of lifelong healthy eating habits. It also discussed crucial points to bear in mind when feeding your kid food, such as that it is your responsibility to offer your child a variety of healthy food, but that it is your child’s responsibility to decide which of the offered food to eat, as well as how much food to have (if any!)
This blog post, Part 2, discusses practical tips and advice that might be helpful as you raise your kids to love healthy food. Since children are all unique, it might take patience and practice to find the right approach for your little one.
1. Try offering your child at least two or three healthy options to choose from during meals. With fussy eaters, you can ensure that you provide at least one type of healthy food that your child enjoys eating—or usually enjoys eating. The child can be expected to choose from the food you have prepared for the rest of your family for more variety. (This obviously does not apply to babies and small tots who still require unsalted, pureed food.) If the child is hungry, he will eat from the offered choices. Do not continue to offer an endless number of options if he is not interested in the healthy options that you have offered. Notably, never offer a fussy eater a sugar and fat-laden cookie or chips for dinner just so that she would “at least eat something!”
2. While you are cooking, offer your kids veggies to snack on such as carrot sticks, cooked pumpkin or sweet potato pieces, cucumber (preferably unpeeled), halved cocktail tomatoes, corn kernels, butter or lima beans, fresh fine green beans, peas (my kids eat them frozen in summer!), etc.
3. The order in which you present food during a meal is important. Remember, “hunger is the best sauce”, so offer the least favorite options first. I tend to first offer vegetables and meat (typically lean chicken or fish). Give fruit afterwards as dessert. Fruit contains lots of vitamins, but also a lot of (natural) sugar. Moderation is important to prevent your child from filling up on fruit and then refusing other nutritious options on the table. Variety is important to ensure that your kids consume enough of the various nutrients that their bodies require. I usually prepare fruit salad only once we have finished dinner.
4. Keep meals interesting and informal. Eat together as a family around a table as often as possible. Mealtimes and time spent preparing food can be lovely bonding times for the whole family. Let the children help to prepare meals or play in the kitchen while you cook (just be sure to keep them safe and away from hot food and sharp utensils!). This will help them to become accustomed to the different textures, aromas, smells and odors of food.
5. Try not to add any salt to your home cooking. If your family is currently used to added salt in your cooking, gradually reduce the amount of salt you add to as little as possible – no added salt would be best. Rather put a saltshaker on the table for adults who dislike salt-free food. If you persistently feed your child food with a low salt content, she will most likely learn to prefer her food that way. This will be very positive for your child’s health in the long-term, especially since she is growing up in a world packed with salted and processed food. Your child will most likely get more than enough salt from other sources.
6. Children and toddlers have an uncontrollable urge to play and they love stimulation (provided they are not too tired). Do not expect them to sit at the table and quietly eat their dinner the way grown-ups tend to do. Allow them to play with toys or food, should they want to. I keep containers with small toys in my kitchen. Surprises and toys from Christmas stockings, grab bags and party favors all go in there. The kids are allowed to play with these toys during meal times—at my discretion of course. (It is also a practical time to allow small children to play with small toys, as you can supervise them while they play with small parts.)
7. Bath time is great time for feeding toddlers and small children. A bath confines them to a small space where they are often happy and relaxed. Since small kids need constant supervision while they are in the bath, it is also a convenient time for parents or caregivers to feed them. I often fed my kids leftover dinner in the bath while they were small, especially if they were too playful or energetic at dinnertime to eat much.
8. Some kids and babies like to feed themselves. Others prefer to be fed. Be sensitive to whether your child dislikes getting his/her hands dirty or gets frustrated when using cutlery. With babies and preschoolers, your focus should be on teaching them to enjoy healthy food as these are crucial years for teaching healthy eating patterns. Table manners should be a secondary concern. It tends to be easier to teach children table manners once they become concerned about how their peers view and judge them. Also, there is nothing wrong with feeding a child who prefers not to eat by himself, but be sure to feed him healthy food only. If your child wants to have an unhealthy dessert, do not spoon it into his mouth for him.
9. Children sometimes like strange food combinations. Encourage them to experiment! An all time favorite in our house is sliced banana with peanut butter (a brand with no salt, sugar or oil added) spread on top. We call it “banana flower”, since I usually arrange the slices in the shape of a flower. It sometimes becomes interesting variants too, such as “banana rocket” or “banana snowflake”.
10. I often sweet-talk or even force my children to eat the first bite of their food by not backing off until they took at least a small bite. Kids will sometimes decide not to try something if it looks unfamiliar or unusual in any way. Once my kids tried a bite, they will often clear the plate without further ado. They do not have to eat a second bite should they not want to though.
Mr. Rob’s mom actually did this with him as a child and called it a “no thank you bite”. By repeatedly coaxing a child into tasting a certain food, they will hopefully(!) over time learn to enjoy the taste of the food item. (See ‘Often and early’ gives children a taste for vegetables for more on this.)
11, Children should NEVER be forced to eat the last bite of food. If the child feels full, she should be allowed to leave whatever is still on the plate, even should that just be a tiny morsel of food.
12. Let your children compete for their food! Research suggests younger siblings are less fussy eaters than firstborns are, possibly since they know that passing up an opportunity to eat might lead to another child finishing off a desired food item. Do not hesitate to offer your child’s leftovers to siblings or other family members, as opposed to saving it for later. You could also eat it yourself while the child is watching (provided of course that you are still hungry!).
13. Never force or coax a child into eating pudding, dessert or unhealthy snacks. There is never any good reason to coerce a child into eating or drinking something that is not healthy.
14. Experiment with cutlery. Perhaps your child would enjoy his dinner better if you serve it with a red plastic spoon on a Mickey Mouse plate. Try pouring your daughter water or milk into her pink toy teacup at dinnertime.
15. Instead of buying nutritional supplements, rather spend money on interesting, nutritious and ‘luxurious’ fruit and vegetables such as blueberries, pomegranates, strawberries, sugar snap peas, baby corn and exotic fruit. Unless your doctor prescribed your child a supplement for a specific reason, you would be wise to ignore all those shelves of vitamins and supplements that are aggressively marketed by big companies. Research suggests that most of these supplements are without any benefits to healthy children in first world countries, while some of them even have the potential to harm your child. (See Vitamin supplements can increase risk of cancer and heart disease and Fish oil: friend or foe?) Remember, no supplement could ever replace a healthy diet.
16. If organic fruits and vegetables do not fall within your budget, do not hesitate to buy alternative products. Research suggests that buying organic products might not be significantly better for you in any case, as explained in Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy organic? Probably not.
17. I NEVER buy sweets or snacks from those tempting aisles next to the supermarket checkout line. The great thing about this is that my kids know not to ask for sweets or snacks from those aisles. They know that I never give in to such requests, regardless of how much they might have nagged or tantrummed in the past. It really helps to keep those supermarket tantrums in check! While buying a treat once might not be a nutritional disaster, the problem is that buying from those aisles will become a habit before you know it.
18. Avoid going shopping with hungry children or otherwise try to take a healthy snack along. Fortunately, our local supermarket puts out free fruit for kids (under 12). My kids love helping themselves to some fruit from ‘their’ shelf – and I love supporting this particular supermarket. Maybe you could suggest this idea to the store manager at your local supermarket?
19. The way you refer to food matters, so try to think like a marketer here. For example, my kids are always keen to eat ‘green pea balls’, which might sound more enticing than just having plain, boring old peas. Try sayings such as: “Super spinach gives kids super speed!” and encourage them to see how quickly they can repeat it.
20. Do not use food to reward or bribe your child. Find other ways to reward your child, such as stickers, a new children’s CD or iTunes song, or read a story together – depending on how big the reward should be. (I must confess, this is the item on this list that I have most trouble sticking to, as it can be so quick and easy to bribe a kid with sweets or an unhealthy snack! I have successfully used very small treats as rewards or bribes with my kids though, possibly due to treats being so rare in our house. For example, I would reward my kids with a single sugarcoated sunflower seed during potty training and they were always delighted to receive such a tiny treat!)
21. Whether a particular type of food classifies as healthy is sometimes open for debate. Furthermore, our bodies are unique and a food that might be perfectly healthy for one child (for example gluten or dairy) could have undesirable health effects for another. For this reason, I did not want to spend much time listing healthy food.
The best starting point for healthy eating is undoubtedly to avoid processed food and fast food (such as burgers and fries) whenever possible. Also, avoid or limit foods or drinks that contain added salt or a significant amount of sugar (whether natural or processed).
For more information on what food items can be classified as healthy, you might want to read Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.
Are you already using some of these tips? What other secrets work with your children? Feel free to share your advice by leaving a comment below.