By Sarah Bangs, FoodScience Corporation
Children are rapidly developing, and not only in the physical sense. They are continually forming new habits, and these habits are often carried over to adulthood.
Young children are, in a sense, “blank slates” as far as habits are concerned, and practices surrounding food and eating truly can last a lifetime.
If children grow up in a home where unhealthy foods are the norm and disconnection with mealtime is par for the course, this can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food down the road. It may also result in a cycle that is passed on to their future children. Creating healthy nutrition for kids sets them on the trajectory for a healthier, happier future.
Here are the top six factors that play into healthy eating habits for children, some of which you can begin implementing at home.
Get Them Cooking
There is a massive disconnection from most modern-day children and the food on their plate. If you go to McDonald's for a hamburger, there's no consideration of the original cow, the food that cow ate, or all the steps it took for you to eat that burger.
On the flip side, cooking with children is an amazing opportunity to teach them that food and the experience of eating is far more than just calories-in, calories-out. Instead, it's about the connection you share with your family, and it gives children a real opportunity to see what a meal is supposed to be. Furthermore, being involved in the cooking process gives them choices, and this helps them feel more participatory in the process. Think of it like this: most kids buy into the process of cooking and meal prep, which naturally makes them more excited and inclined to try the foods they helped choose and prepare.
Take this one step further and let your kids go with you to the grocery store. Let them help pick out the foods you buy. If you have a garden, get them involved in gardening, even if you're only able to grow herbs in the window that you'll use to cook with later on.
All About Mealtime
In a lot of households (especially with young children), mealtime can quickly turn into a nightmare of failed discipline and fear around whether your kids will eat enough. The truth of the matter is that children will not starve themselves, and they have the innate ability to lock into their satiety and hunger cues if we let them.
It’s imperative to turn off the TV, put electronic devices away, and take advantage of mealtimes for calm connections. If children are distracted while eating, it disrupts their ability to recognize when they’re full and may form dysfunctional eating habits. Ideally, mealtime is an enjoyable time for the whole family — actions like these foster a healthy relationship with food that will carry them into adulthood.
If your children are struggling to stay at the table or showing clear signs they aren’t interested in eating — such as throwing food— it’s best to put their food away and let it be clear that food is offered at mealtime, and only at mealtime. Eventually, they will understand that this is their opportunity to eat. Many parents end up pressuring kids to eat and worrying when they don’t, and children feel this stress. Even small children can instinctively decide when they need to eat and when to stop eating, so trust is imperative to avoid massive mealtime battles.
The Clean Plate Club and Dessert
This is a somewhat old-fashioned notion of how mealtimes should go, and it makes sense. Mainly when our parents and grandparents were growing up, the expense of food was ever-present, and throwing food away seemed out of the question. It was expected that children finished every last bite.
However, if you want your children to be able to connect with and recognize their fullness, it’s key to avoid manipulating it. A better approach is to encourage kids to try everything on their plate simply. Many parents will use dessert as a reward for a clean plate, but it’s best to keep dessert out of it.
Being rewarded for eating a healthy meal with unhealthy food won’t help develop mindful eating. The practice of using food as a reward can make your kids associate eating vegetables or items they don’t like with pain or discomfort and sweet, sugary foods with joy and success. Instead, reward eating healthy foods with activities – or any other way that suits your family– and keep dessert an occasional treat that is not connected to eating meals.
How to Offer Healthy Choices
It can take 10-20 introductions of new food for your child to try it, so be patient and offer a variety of healthy choices. Ask your child why they don’t like a particular food (is it the taste, smell, or texture?), and try switching up your cooking method next time.
It’s vital to stick with real, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, healthy proteins, and fats and avoid processed, packaged, and sugary foods. A moderate amount of whole grain bread or pasta, beans, and legumes can also make up a healthy plate, instead of white flour alternatives.
As the parent, you hold the responsibility of offering healthy food options. Also, choosing when mealtimes are instead of grazing and snacking throughout the day, to the point where they won’t touch their dinner. Allowing your child to decide how much she or he wants to eat or if they want to eat at designated mealtimes lets them assess their hunger and desire for food. Pressuring them to eat when they insist they aren’t hungry can go against mindful eating practices, which form the backbone of healthy eating habits for kids.
The process of getting your kids to try new, healthy foods is often not as easy as it sounds. So some good old-fashioned creativity can go a long way. Keep trying, and work with your kids to find vegetables they enjoy and have realistic expectations.
Maybe they hate kale but love broccoli, and that’s OK. Both are cruciferous vegetables with somewhat similar nutrient profiles, and broccoli could go nicely in a mac ‘n cheese made with whole grain pasta, for example. You can try making a homemade pizza with grain-free or whole wheat crust and adding colorful veggies and some protein, or a smoothie with a handful of spinach and fruit. It’s best to be honest and transparent with your kids instead of “sneaking” foods in. They can usually tell and might react strongly and refuse to eat these foods in the future.
Try implementing fun games, like the “Adventure Bite.” Let your kids have the foods they are comfortable with and like, such as chicken tenders. But at every meal, encourage them to have an adventure bite, meaning they need to try something from a parent’s plate. This can make trying new foods fun and is more likely to be successful than loading their plate with a brand new vegetable -- especially, for picky eaters.
Make it Easy
Life is complicated enough, so make making healthy choices as easy as possible. When you make anything easy for yourself, it ends up becoming a habit more quickly, and this goes for kids, too.
For example, have to-go containers for school or weekend outings accessible and ready to go with healthy snacks. These might be pre-sliced veggies and fruits, grapes, cheese sticks, pre-hard-boiled eggs, whole grain or nut-based crackers, or whatever else your family enjoys. In many families, the slow cooker or instant pot have become lifesavers. However you choose to do it, consider how you can make rushed mornings and tired evenings easier when it comes to healthy food choices.
Last but certainly not least, be a role model of healthy eating for your kids. Children pick up on your beliefs and attitudes around foods more than you know, so let them see you eating a variety of healthy foods without judgment or labeling. Studies show that parental attitudes towards food and their bodies matter more than control over their kid’s diet.¹
Remember that healthy eating habits for kids encompass not only making healthy food choices but also encouraging a healthy connection with the experience of eating. Cook with your children, teach them about the world we live in and make mealtimes a time for family connection. Children need to understand that while healthy eating is essential, it’s just one aspect of developing healthy habits, self-love, and mindfulness.
1 Rachael Brown, Jane Ogden. “Children’s eating attitudes and behavior: A study of the modelling and control theories of parental influence.” June 2004. https://academic.oup.com/her/article/19/3/261/642259. Accessed 27 July 2019.