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Teaching kids healthy eating habits

Teaching Kids Healthy Eating Habits

October 02, 2019

If you were to offer your child either a candy bar or an apple, which do you think they would choose? What if you changed the choice to either crackers and cheese or an apple?

The lesson: If you keep food choices healthy, your child is more likely to eat healthy. It’s that simple.

The first step toward encouraging and teaching healthy eating habits is to fill your kitchen with a variety of nutritious foods. As you plan meals and snacks, remember:

  • Use the Food Guide Pyramid as a guide. When trying to determine how many servings your child needs, ask your doctor or dietitian. In general, younger and smaller children need fewer servings than older and bigger children.
  • Eat a variety of grains, especially whole grains.
  • Encourage a variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Watch fat intake, especially saturated fat, for everyone in your family older than age two.
  • Save sweets and soft drinks for special treats.

How does your family’s eating habits compare to healthy recommendations? Kelsey-Seybold Dietitian Ronda Elsenbrook, RD, LD, CDCES, suggests keeping a family food diary for several days.

“If your child is old enough, they can also keep a separate food diary,” says Ronda. “In the diary, write down what and how much everyone ate, as well as where and when food was eaten. You might want to check the fat content of foods to see if your diet is high in fat.”

After a few days, identify where your family eating habits could use some improvement. For instance, are you low on fruits and vegetables? Is the saturated fat content high?

“You also might want to consider emotional or practical reasons for unhealthy habits,” says Ronda. “For instance, does your family gravitate toward the TV when eating? Is fast food the norm on evenings when everyone is too busy to cook? Do you eat when you’re lonely, tired, or sad but not particularly hungry? Factors such as these can often influence the amount and type of food consumed.”

Kids Nutrition

Make Changes Gradually

If you have a finicky eater on your hands, it may be more difficult to get them to try nutritious foods. Kelsey-Seybold dietitians offer this advice: Keep offering them the food for meals or snacks. Research shows children may need to be exposed to a new food up to 10 times before they accept it. Changes are easier for children to handle when they are made slowly. Adopting one or two healthy habits a week will gradually add up to big health returns.

Here are some healthy habits to adopt:

  • Try to offer foods from at least three food groups at each meal and from at least two food groups at snack times. This will involve some advanced planning before you go grocery shopping.
  • Switch from white to whole-wheat bread or replace white rice with brown rice.
  • Make an official family rule: No eating in front of the TV — even snacks. Research shows that people tend to eat for reasons other than hunger when the TV is on.
  • Purchase only low-fat dairy products for children over age two. Examples include low-fat milk, low-fat cheese, skim milk, and low-fat frozen yogurt.
  • Toss out unhealthy snacks and load up on healthy ones, such as carrot sticks, fresh or dried fruit, low-sugar cereal, low-fat popcorn, frozen fruit juice on a stick, frozen bananas, graham crackers, pretzels, and nuts.
  • Purchase only lean varieties of meat.
  • Identify healthy, quick dinners you can easily make for busy evenings, such as frozen cheese pizza with cut-up vegetables on top.
  • Use cooking methods that require little or no fat, such as broiling, steaming, and roasting, rather than frying.
  • Practice techniques that help children get in touch with the natural cues their body gives them about hunger and fullness. For instance, encourage children to take smaller bites, chew long, and put their fork or spoon down between bites.

Remember to praise children when they make healthy choices rather than berating them for unwise ones. Also, refrain from acting like the food police. The more you forbid certain foods, the more kids will want them, so don’t ban any food outright. Occasional treats of chips, candy, and ice cream are OK.

Kids Nutrition

Teach Children to Make Healthy Choices Away from Home

One of the best ways to teach children about good nutrition is to set a good example. The following are some other ways to help children make wise food choices.

If a child is old enough to understand, you should explain why you make the nutrition decisions you make. For instance, you might say, “We’re switching to whole-wheat bread because it’s healthier than white bread.”

Involve kids in shopping and meal preparation. Let them make food choices that are within the guidelines of healthy eating. As you and your children shop for and prepare the recipes, include some lessons about good nutrition.

For instance, with younger children, you might talk about which food group each ingredient in a recipe belongs to.

With older children, you might teach them healthy food preparation techniques, such as broiling, roasting, microwaving, and baking.

Practice problem solving with your child to help him or her make good food choices at parties, at school, and at friends’ houses. For instance, suggest choosing pretzels over potato chips or grapes over cookies.

When you go out to eat, help your child identify healthy choices. For instance, if you’re at a fast-food restaurant, you might point out that the grilled chicken sandwich is healthier than the double cheeseburger.

Headshot of Ronda Elsenbrook, RD, CDE

About this Author

Ronda Elsenbrook is a registered dietitian and a certified diabetes care and education specialist at Kelsey-Seybold. She and her patients work together to formulate a personalized nutrition plan that will fit their lifestyles, meet individualized goals, and promote good health and quality of life.

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