As parents, we want to give our children the best chance for a healthy life. One of the things we can start with is laying the foundation for making healthy food choices and establishing a healthy relationship with food. There isn’t a magic formula for this, but there are a few things that have been shown to be effective in meeting this goal. Here are ten tips that you may wish to try with your family.
1. Allowing for hunger and satiety cues to be adhered to. Children have fast metabolisms. Their bodies and brains are growing in overdrive so they need to have food available every few hours at minimum. Every child is different. Some will be hungry after only 90 minutes and others might be okay for 3 hours. This will also vary from day to day with the same child depending on growth spurts. The key here is not to try to override the cues your child is feeling.
2. Explain food choices. In an age appropriate way, we can have conversations with our children about why we eat a variety of colours and kinds of food. There are many children who would prefer to live off of pasta and never eat a vegetable or piece of meat. A strategy I use it to explain what their bodies do with the food that I am offering them. It doesn’t mean that they will gobble it up right away, but I am laying a foundation for understanding the concepts behind healthy food choices.
3. Aim for nutrient dense food first. When our twins were old enough to consume solids, we started offering vegetables to them before every meal , while the rest of their food was being portioned out/cooling. This way, I knew that they would eat a decent amount of veggies at their hungriest, then eat the rest of the meal with the space left over. Now I serve all of their food at once; however, I do find that they do a great job of eating their vegetables first a lot of the time. If there is rice or pasta on their plate, that does tend to win out though ☺
4. Everyone at the table is offered the same foods…even if in different portion sizes. If you have a picky eater in your home, this is the MOST important tip I can offer you. Short order meals are only going to make a greater challenge. A child will not starve themselves. We are not doing anyone any favours when we cater to picky eaters. Ideally there is at least one food at every meal that you know your picky eater will enjoy. The key is that this food is on everyone’s plate. And your picky eater has all the foods being served on their plate as well, even if it is a very small amount. It can take 20 or more exposures to a food before a child knows if they like it or not and an exposure can simply be the food served onto the child’s plate. As parents, it can be easy to short change our children on these exposures. If this is something that you have being doing, don’t worry….you can start new habits now! For more tips on making the most of family meal time, see this post.
5. No short order cook. As I mentioned above, ideally everyone at the table is offered the same foods and they can choose how much they want to eat of those foods, but no alternative food offered. There are two reasons for this. One is the obvious…if children are always served foods they love, they will likely not have interest in trying new things. The second reason that parents often do not think of is that by offering their favourite foods, we may be decreasing their attention to their hunger/satiety cues. Perhaps they really aren’t hungry, but they can’t resist a bowl of pasta because they love it. This can lead to overeating behavior later in life on comfort foods even when they are not hungry.
6. Ensure activity and sleep are encouraged and adequate time for this is allowed. If schedules are too busy, it is possible that children are not able to get enough activity or sleep and this can directly affect their overall health and eating habits.
7. Non-food rewards only. Food is meant to nourish the body and be enjoyed, but should never be offered as a reward. The old saying “eat your supper and then you can have dessert” is a disservice to honouring hunger and satiety cues and sets the child up to think that food should be seen as a means for physical and emotional reward and stability.
8. Involve your children in food acquirement and meal prep. This is a great one for any child over 18 months. For more ideas of how to do this at various ages, check out this post.
9. Model healthy eating behavior. Children truly learn from our example. They will see if we are choosing healthy snacks, eating vegetables, eating a variety of foods, sitting for proper meals at a proper pace, getting regular physical activity, and other healthy habits. The more our children see these healthy habits, the more likely they are to make healthy choices too as they grow up. For a few tips on making healthy choices as a mom, see this post.
10. And last, but not least, be conscious of dialogue about food. There are some phrases that are commonly used that have a greater impact on kids than we realize. And you may think that they aren’t listening…but they actually might be taking more in than you think, so be cautious. Here are a few that are good to avoid…
“oh Joey will only eat white bread, cheese, carrots with dip, and most fruit.” It’s possible that Joey struggled with new foods at one point, but there may have been a window to increase his pallet after that. Food jags are common from about 14 months throughout the preschool years. Now his parents have now convinced themselves and Joey that he won’t eat other foods. This type of phrase can become a self-fulfilling prophecy leaving Joey as a “picky eater” for years.
“Finish your supper and you can have ice cream!” Or a variation of this causes food to be seen as a reward only for those who finish their food as opposed to a food that is enjoyed by everyone. A better choice is to wait until all the plates have been cleared and everyone is done supper. Then decide if your child ate enough healthy food to warrant ice cream as an evening snack. If they haven’t, you would be better to offer fruit and yogurt. This way food is not a reward or punishment, but rather something that is being served. If you are serving ice cream, a nice phrase might be something like. “Would you enjoy a small bowl of ice cream as your evening snack tonight?” Ideally this is not something offered every night and children are used to having more nutrient dense snacks which in turns leaves the ice cream as a treat…but not a reward treat.
”the food is great…just eat it!” If my kids do not like a food, I try to determine why. Is it taste, texture, colour, temperature? Sometimes kids have a preconceived notion of liking or not liking a food even before they try it so engaging in conversation and respecting where they are coming from may actually lead to an increased level of cooperation. For example, a child may look at a sliced tomato and notice that there is a sold part, and a runny part, and little seeds, and they feel overwhelmed about how it may feel in their mouth. Also, what if they don’t like the taste? It could be scary for them.
And remember that as parents, we are all learning as we go and some days will be better than others. If you can, try to aim for these tips, even if some days don’t go as you hope, you are doing your best, and that is what matters most.
I hope this has been helpful for you.
Have a blessed day!
Noelle Martin RD