Encouraging your child to develop healthy eating habits is not an easy task. Throw in a few busy schedules, after school activities, and fussy eaters and you’ve got your work cut out for you. With childhood obesity and diabetes on the rise, instilling healthy habits in your child are more important than ever. Here are a few things you can do to help your child have a healthy future.
1. Try as many new foods as possible. If kids are used to a regular regimen of chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and French fries, they’ll grow to expect that and become picky eaters. In order for their taste buds to develop, they have to try new things. Keep your kids guessing at dinner time and it will be exciting for everyone. Try to have a few side dishes with every entrée so that if they don’t like one thing they won’t go to bed hungry. Once you discover some favorites, you can create a dinner rotation filled with tried and true meals as well as new recipes.
2. Avoid saying “you wouldn’t like this.” First impressions are everything. Once kids have an idea in their head that they don’t like something, they are not likely to forget it. If they’re not allowed to try your spinach, they may write spinach off altogether and refuse to eat it. Let your child explore and be their own judge of what they do and do not like. You may be surprised!
3. Educate your child about their food. Did you know that carrots used to be purple before the 17th century? What do you think a purple carrot would taste like? What animal is famous for loving carrots? What do they look like when they eat their carrots? Ask your kids questions and learn some fun facts about food to encourage curiosity and eagerness to try new things. If kids insist they don’t like something that they’ve never tried before, such as carrots, ask them to show you how a rabbit would eat a carrot. Think Randy’s piggy mashed potatoes from “A Christmas Story,” only less messy. They may just find out that they have loved carrots all along!
4. Lead by example. Most kids are more willing to try foods if they see their parents enjoying them. Don’t be afraid to let the “mmm’s” and “ahh’s” flow at the dinner table to encourage your kids try the dreaded broccoli. Try to bring as many new tastes into the home as possible and let your child observe you enjoying them. Liking the same foods can create a bond that only you and your child can share. Perhaps everyone in your house hates kiwis, but you and your daughter love them. You can share your love of kiwis by creating recipes together and finding out what other tastes you have in common.
5. Grow a garden. A garden is a labor of love and a great learning experience for any child. Once kids see how much effort goes into growing a garden, they’ll be less likely to waste their food. They’ll also learn responsibility and how much a garden is affected if not watered for just one day. If your family lives in an urban setting where gardening is not an option, try growing herbs in pots. Most herbs can easily be grown inside and will open your child up to new tastes.
6. Let kids help in the kitchen. The more involved that kids are with the cooking process, the more excited they will be to indulge in their finished product. If kids are presented with a mystery dish again and again, they’ll be quicker to turn it away or pick apart the pieces that they don’t like. Encourage your child to help prepare dinner by doing simple and safe tasks like washing vegetables and measuring ingredients. If they’re interested, allow them to taste each piece that goes into the meal before it’s a finished product to appreciate every aspect of it. Try a sweet pea before it goes into a shepherd’s pie or a bit of green pepper before tossing it into the pot of chili.
7. Don’t use negative reinforcement with food. “If you don’t finish your vegetables, you won’t get dessert.” How many times have we heard this phrase? Forcing kids to clear their plates can result in overeating. If they are constantly rewarded for eating everything in front of them no matter how hungry they are, they’ll stop paying attention to the voice in their head that tells them to stop when they’re full. In addition, your child may begin to dread meal time and see it as a punishment if they simply aren’t hungry.
8. Start with small portions to avoid waste. We’ve all heard the phrase, “your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” This is especially true for kids. Serve small portions of meals with equal amounts of each dish on the plate to begin with. If they decide they’d like more of something, they can take more once they’ve finished their portion. This reduces the amount of wasted food and encourages kids to clear their plate without using negative reinforcement.
9. Create a good balance. According to the USDA, a meal should consist of almost equal portions of vegetables, grains, proteins, and fruits with a smaller portion of dairy. Try to include as many healthy and diverse options in every meal as possible. Even pizza night can get a healthy makeover with some diced broccoli and peppers. The more kids are used to seeing different food groups the more willing they will be to clear their plate.
10. Try to make family dinner time as regular as possible. With varying work schedules and after school activities, most families have very diverse schedules making family dinner time a thing of the past. When everyone eats at different times, it often results in too much snacking and not eating a full balanced meal. Try to clear your schedules to arrange a time that your entire family can sit down together for a meal. Even if it’s only once per week, family dinner time is sometimes the only time that the entire family can be in the same room and have a conversation. Kids may even look forward to the structured bonding time.