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One of the most common concerns that I hear from parents is, “How can I get my child to eat healthier?”
This isn’t just a concern for parents – it’s also on the minds of other caretakers like grandparents and aunties and uncles.
As our nation and our communities are faced with an epidemic of childhood obesity and other nutrition related conditions, most parents I encounter are looking for ways to actively create a better environment at home to raise healthy eaters.
As a parent myself, I know it’s not an easy task and may take lots of practice and consistency to find the right balance for you and your child. But it’s certainly worth the effort.
It’s well established that teaching kids to eat healthfully and adopt healthy behaviors while young can help them develop good eating habits for life. Finding creative and enjoyable ways to engage children in healthier food consumption can also help give them the nutrients they need now for proper growth and development.
Plus, good nutrition can enhance their immune systems and keep them out of the doctor’s office, too!
Here are 10 ways parents (and other caretakers) can help shape healthy food preferences in children:
- Be a role model. Children model themselves after grownups, so you are the most important influence on your child’s diet. Research has shown that the strongest predictor of fruit and vegetable intake in young kids is the amount of these foods eaten by their parents and caregivers. Modeling healthy eating is a golden opportunity to teach your kids that it’s important to take care of your body. Try stocking the pantry with nutrient rich foods that you and your children can eat regularly.
- Watch your language. When denying your child junk food, try using creative language. Instead of saying “no,” they will likely respond better to, “This is not an everyday food that will help you grow, do well at soccer, or (fill in the blank with something that motivates them).” Give your child a lot of praise when they’re being a healthy eater by saying things like, “Wow, I think those vegetables helped you run faster,” or, “That bowl of fruit sure gave you a lot of energy to get that goal in soccer,” or (for adolescent kids), “I’ve noticed you’ve been eating a lot more salads lately…I wonder if that could be helping your skin clear up.”
- Honor mealtimes. Eating meals together as a family, on a regular basis, creates opportunities for talking about the day’s events and enhances family relationships. Some research also suggests children who eat family dinner together are more likely to eat balanced diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, have better emotional well-being, and lower rates of obesity.
- Plan and shop for meals together. Children desire a sense of purpose and are usually eager to participate in even seemingly mundane tasks such as grocery shopping. Parents can creatively engage kids in helping to plan a meal with one whole grain, two vegetables, and a few ounces of animal or plant-based protein. Add some fun to your shopping routine by making it a scavenger hunt or an “I spy” game. Kids will be more likely to try a new fruit or vegetable if they were able to pick it out themselves at the grocery store or farmers’ market.
- Get cooking! Although it often requires a little bit more patience and time, cooking with your child can be a pleasurable time for bonding and provides many opportunities for learning and practicing fine motor skills. Engage kids with age-appropriate tasks, whether it’s setting the table, scrubbing vegetables, measuring ingredients into a bowl, peeling potatoes or carrots, or de-stemming fresh herbs by hand or with small scissors. Finding child-sized tools, like the ones from Curious Chef, can make things easier and can empower them in accomplishing even the simplest tasks.
- Neutralize the neophobe. Neophobia is a natural tendency found in most kids to avoid new foods. When introducing a new food to a child, introduce it with something they already like and are familiar with. Remember: it can take anywhere from 10 to 15 tries before a child accepts a new food. If they don’t like it the first time, don’t make it a fight. Consider serving it prepared in a slightly different way next time. Keep in mind that the more foods children are introduced to, the more variety they will eat as adults.
- Let your child play with their food. Can you have a “who can crunch it the loudest” contest with snap peas, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, or other crunchy veggies? For younger kids, try veggie lovin’ animal role-play: act like baby animals…rabbits, iguanas, etc. that are excited to chomp their veggies. In my household, we’ve been known to pretend cut up bell pepper strips are lizard tongues or that cauliflower is a baby dinosaur brain or the purple carrot slices are monster eyeballs…with my son, usually the grosser, the better!
- But first, vegetables. Getting kids to eat their vegetables can be the most challenging task, but in my opinion, the most important. While cooking dinner or waiting for your food to arrive at a restaurant, create (or, if at a restaurant, order) a nibble plate of things like cucumbers, avocado, or carrots for your child to snack on. At home, try shredding a carrot into your pasta sauce or adding spinach or avocado to their grilled cheese. This makes it easier to guarantee that they’ll fill up on more of the nutrient dense foods you want them to and less of what you don’t.
- Don’t be a short order cook. We have a rule in our house that our kids eat what we eat and we try our best not to give in to making separate meals or buying into “kiddie cuisine” like dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets. But they may prefer certain ingredients not be mixed together in the way we like them (e.g. stir fry), so we simply “deconstruct” the dish, set aside some of the ingredients, and serve them individually on the plate.
- Get to know local food. Take your kids to the farmers’ market every week in the growing season or venture out with the family or a school field trip to a local farm to pick fresh berries or pumpkins when in season. The kids will likely be inspired to try new and interesting varieties of veggies like rainbow carrots. And growing a garden, even if it’s just a few fresh herbs, is another great way to engage their senses. Gardening helps kids understand where food comes from, teaches responsibility, and provides daily physical activity. Plus, kids are more likely to try something (and like it) if they grew it!
By following these 10 tips and trying consistently to offer more nutritionally sound foods at home, it will be much easier for you to relax around birthday parties and other social events where junk foods are inevitably going to be served. Knowing when it’s ok to bend the rules and when to be flexible with your food ideals is important for helping children have a lifelong, healthy relationship with food.