8 Healthy Eating Tips for Kids
We are constantly asked if we offer programs specifically designed for children, and unfortunately the answer is no. That said, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of introducing wholesome, nutritious food into your children’s diets at an early age. By teaching and modeling healthy dietary habits, you can help your children maintain a healthy weight and normal growth patterns, regulate mood and behavior, lower risk for many inflammatory diseases, improve their performance in school and sports, and help prevent (or manage symptoms of) mental health disorders.
Remember, children are not born with an innate craving for processed, packaged junk food. This is conditioning that develops over the years from peer pressure, youth-targeted advertisements, strategic marketing, and simple convenience due to hectic lifestyles. However, all hope is not lost! It is never too late to change the narrative and re-program your family’s food preferences in ways that are much easier (and inexpensive) than you think.
Here are our 8 tried-and-true tips to encourage healthy eating habits, from toddler to teen.
- Be a healthy role model. In other words, children won’t always listen to what you say, but they will always remember what you do. They are hardwired to imitate, so model the eating habits you wish to instill. Also, to help ensure a healthy relationship with food, avoid remarking negatively on your own physique in front of the kids or following an overly restrictive “deprivation diet”.
- Be a guide, not a dictator.The parents -not the children- control the supply lines. We decide which foods are regularly stocked in the house and when they will be served. Although kids will pester their parents for less nutritious foods, they will learn to eat (and enjoy!) what's available in the cupboard and fridge at home. If their favorite snack isn't all that nutritious, you can still buy it once in awhile so they don't feel deprived.
- Get your children involved in mealtime. In general, children are more apt to try new foods when they are involved in the preparation. This is also an opportunity to teach them about various foods, the benefits of healthy eating, how to understand a food label, and how to follow a recipe.
- Make healthy snacks available.Have a variety of fruit, vegetables, nuts and “clean” packaged snacks on hand and within reach to help crowd out the cravings for junk. We recommend keeping snacks as nutritious as possible at home so there is plenty of “wiggle room” for social events, birthday parties, etc. Additionally, if you find that snacking is leading to overeating or adversely affecting his/her appetite at meal times, you may want to plan specific windows when it’s permitted.
- Eat dinner as a family at least once a week. Sitting down for a home-cooked (or takeaway!) meal as a family is a great way to model healthy eating and portion control, and can even help in strengthening the family bonds. Encourage upbeat conversation and story-sharing around the dinner table (we love: “rose, bud, thorn”) – and try to avoid lecturing, fighting and screen-time. Side note: restaurants typically have much more added sugar, saturated fats and sodium, so the more you can cook at home, the better for your family’s overall health. We recommend cooking larger batches a few times a week so you have enough for leftovers the next night (and maybe even a few lunches as well).
- Limit screen-time. Research shows that there is a direct correlation between reduced screen-time and lower body fat percentage. This is because when you limit the time on the TV and computer, children tend to engage in more physical activity, and avoid excessive snacking. Additionally, having the TV on while eating makes it more difficult to tune into feelings of satiety and register fullness, which often leads to mindless munching.
- Encourage slow and mindful eating. We suggest chewing food about 20 times per bite and waiting at least 20 minutes before serving “seconds”; this is the amount of time it takes your brain to receive the message from the stomach that you’re “done”. Additionally, we advise that children eat the majority of their vegetables before going back for a second helping of protein or grains. On the flip side, it’s also important to allow children to stop eating when they feel full. The “clean-plate club” mentality that so many of us grew up with does not teach children to listen to and recognize their body’s messages of satiety.
- Avoid using food as punishment or reward. Food does not equal love, and when it is used as a “treat”, children may start using it as a coping mechanism during sad or stressful moments. Also, by using dessert as a reward, children may start viewing sweets as more “valuable” – thereby sending the wrong message entirely about the importance and benefits of healthy foods. On the other hand, withholding it as a “consequence” may cause young children to worry that they won’t have enough to eat, leading to anxiety, bingeing, or both.
Megan + Robyn