Knowing the healthiest foods to feed your family is one thing. Actually getting your kids to eat those foods is another job entirely. And sometimes it can be a battle. Here’s how to encourage healthy eating habits and a positive relationship with food in your household.
Your child’s relationship with food begins at home. Here’s how to ensure that your family is learning how to eat nutritiously and develop a positive association with meals, snacks and food in general so they can get on track to a lifetime of eating well.
Step 1: Lead by example
Want to encourage your kids to eat better without eliciting moans and groans about veggies? Christine Woods, M.D., USANA advising pediatrician and author of How to Get Kids to Eat Great and Love It, says, “Show your own enjoyment of eating healthy foods. Try new fruits and vegetables. Studies show that kids will follow the mother’s food choices and most food preferences are set by age two to three years.”
Step 2: Eat meals together
While activities, jobs and early bedtimes may make it difficult to eat a family dinner every night of the week, make an effort to have meals together as often as possible. According to Woods, studies have found that teens who eat dinner at home are more likely to have a healthier diet.
Step 3: Draw boundaries
You’re a mom, but you’re not a short-order cook. “It’s the parent’s job to pick and choose what to offer,” says Woods. “Kids will learn to hold out for ‘their foods’ and be less likely to try new things you’ve prepared,” says Woods. Instead of automatically breaking out the mac ‘n’ cheese or chicken fingers at the first sign of protest, keep offering your child foods they may have shunned in the past. “Toddlers especially may refuse a food one day and love it the next,” she adds.
Step 4: Watch portion sizes
It’s important to respect your child’s appetite and allow them to stop eating when they’re full, advises Woods. In fact, studies have found that giving young children meals that are larger than age-appropriate can lead to overeating. Avoid laying down a smorgasbord of options in a desperate attempt to provide sustenance of any sort. Offer small first servings, then offer a second serving if your eater is still hungry. “Allow your child to pick and choose how much to eat,” she adds.
Step 5: Let food do its job
Parents have been known to use food to occupy kids or serve as a bribe or reward. “Don’t use food to try to change behavior,” says Woods. While it’s important to plan for snacks — ideally, fun fingers foods like veggie strips or fruits — try to avoid offering a constant array of goodies in the car or kids will begin to associate car rides or boredom with eating.
Step 6: Make healthy food available
Do you have jars of candy and cookies stashed within easy reach in your kitchen? Or do you have a bowl of fruit on the table and sliced veggies at the ready in the fridge? By keeping healthy food choices handy and less nutritious options out of sight, the healthier options will be eaten more often, says Woods, who suggests some of following fun snacks for especially picky eaters:
- Go for calcium and protein: Cottage cheese in an ice cream cone topped with sliced almonds and fresh or dried fruit.
- Make-your-own healthy fries: Slice sweet potatoes into wedges or slices and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in the oven at 375 for 20-30 minutes until done.
- Get dipping: A healthy fruit dip can be made with vanilla yogurt, cinnamon or nutmeg. Skewer fruit on a kabob stick for a fun snack.
- Better than a milkshake: Make a healthy fruit smoothie with fresh and/or frozen fruit.
Want more healthy eating ideas, snack suggestions and recipes? Check out Great Expectations: Best Food for Your Baby and Toddler or Simple Food for Busy Families, by Real Food Moms Jeannette Bessinger and Tracee Yablon-Brenner.