How to raise healthy eaters
Tips and strategies to get our children excited about healthy eating and easy way to instil healthy eating habits in kids
It’s a common topic of discussion among parents – what their kids do and don’t eat. Picky eaters are not due to poor parenting; many good parents have children who prefer junk food. What can be done to help our children grow up as healthy eaters?
Serve Healthy Food
Sounds obvious right? But when a child doesn’t like a food, it’s often easier to just not serve it to them. Make a point of always providing fruit, vegetables and healthy proteins with their meals at home and lunches for school. Encourage them to try “just a bite”.
A study done in 2010 showed that kids who tried a vegetable that they didn’t like 8 or 9 times began to then like it more. It takes time to develop a taste for food – but with each try, they’ll get closer to liking it more. MyPlate Food Guide and Canada’s Food Guide provide direction for having healthy and balanced food intake.
According to Dr. Claire McCarthy of Harvard Health Publishing, “Make sure half their calories are from “good” carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Healthy eaters need to limit highly processed carbohydrates, such as cookies, cakes, sodas, and chips. Keep healthy snacks, such as yoghurt, fruits, and vegetables, on hand instead of high-fat, high-sodium foods.”
Control unhealthy amounts of unnecessary calorie intake. Eat minimal fast food. Provide water and low-fat milk for beverages and limit sodas and other drinks that are high in sugar. Be mindful when you’re shopping – if junk food is not in the house, they (and you!) can’t snack on it.
Be aware of how you talk about food
We tend to talk about “good food” and “bad food”. But then when we eat “bad” food, what does that say about us? Treats and junk food will always be a part of special events, celebrations or holidays. Having a “good” or “bad” association with food doesn’t help us with our feelings around food. Of course, the goal is to have an overall healthy diet, but try changing the focus of your conversations around food. It would be encouraging and helpful for the young healthy eaters to hear more about healthy choices and reasonable amounts instead of good and bad.
Involve your children with food
Take your children grocery shopping and include them in making healthy selections. Of course, they’ll want every treat in the store, but let them select apples that they think look nice or pick out a new vegetable to try with dinner. Have your healthy eaters help in the kitchen with food preparation.
It’s a way to spend and enjoy time together, they’ll learn important cooking skills and they’ll have a better understanding of the food they eat. You can even grow food together! Have them pick out seeds to plant in the garden and then enjoy the harvest. All of these things can make healthy eating an enjoyable and shared experience.
A study presented at the annual meeting of The Obesity Society showed that the obesity epidemic is ingrained with poor eating habits that began between the ages of 12 and 24 months. Babies need to learn to listen to their own hunger cues and parents forcing them to finish a bottle can confuse that.
Early eaters who are given vegetables and fruits regularly will think of them as normal foods rather than ones they’re forced to eat. Be mindful of how those early meals set them up to eat for years to come.
Avoid using food as a reward or punishment
Food has three key roles: nutrition, social engagement and emotional input. We eat to survive by consuming nutrients. We eat while we engage socially with others, during holidays and for special occasions. We also eat because it provides pleasure.
Using food to reward good behaviour or punish poor behaviour creates confusion around food. It might work to alter behaviour in the short term, but in the long term, it creates a function around food that is unhealthy.
It’s not just about food
Eating healthy is important, but health is also about exercise, rest, less screen time and more family time. School-aged kids should be getting a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity on most days. Be a role model and get moving regularly yourself. Help your child get enough rest but enforcing set bed and wakeup times, cutting caffeine intake and ensuring they get 8-9 hours of sleep per night.
TV, computers, tablets and videos games contribute to a sedentary lifestyle. When at a screen, children’s metabolism slows while their appetites increase. Eat together as a family, interact and engage with one another over the meal. This provides an opportunity to demonstrate healthy eating yourself while maintaining positive relationships among the family members.
Sometimes creative methods may be needed and advice from a professional can help. Speak with your family doctor if, despite your best efforts, your child’s diet needs expanding. If you personally have an unhealthy relationship with food, get support so you can feel confident in fostering your child’s relationship with eating.
For more suggestions and guidance around nutrition and healthy eating, visit the government of Canada’s webpage for Food and Nutrition.
Check out Little Food Lovers, a free e-book series dedicated to family-friendly recipes and snack and meal ideas, as well as lifestyle tips and strategies designed to get your kids excited about healthy eating!