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Teaching Kids Healthy Eating Habits
By Krishnawari Pant, MD
If you were to offer your child a candy bar or an apple, which do you think they would choose? What if you changed the choice to 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 MyPlate food 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.
- Include 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 2.
- Save sweets and soft drinks for special treats.
How do your family’s eating habits compare to healthy recommendations? To find out, I suggest keeping a family food diary for several days. If your child is old enough, they can also keep a separate food diary. In the diary, write down what and how much everyone ate, as well as where and when food was eaten.
After a few days, identify where your family’s 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. For instance, does your family gravitate toward the TV when eating? Is fast food the norm when everyone is too busy to cook? Do you eat when you’re lonely, tired, or sad but not particularly hungry? Factors like these can influence the amount and type of food consumed.
Make Changes Gradually
If you have a finicky eater on your hands, it may be more difficult to get them to try nutritious foods. Keep offering them the food you want to introduce 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’re made slowly.
Adopting one or two healthy habits a week will gradually add up to big health returns. Here are some ideas to start with:
- 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 grain 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 2. Examples include low-fat milk, low-fat cheese, skim milk, and low-fat 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 healthier, quick dinners you can easily make for busy evenings, such as frozen cheese pizza with cut-up vegetables on top.
- Consider subscribing to a meal delivery service that helps you cook healthier meals in a shorter amount of time without having to spend a lot of effort planning and shopping. Your kids can even help you choose which meals to order.
- Use cooking methods that require little or no fat, such as broiling, steaming, grilling, and roasting.
- 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 longer, 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 okay.
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 grain 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, and steaming.
Practice problem solving with your child to help them 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 example, if you’re at a fast-food restaurant, you might point out that the grilled chicken sandwich is healthier than the double cheeseburger.
Getting your entire family on the same page and willing to commit to a nutritious diet can go a long way toward teaching your kids healthy eating habits that will follow them into adulthood.