Creating an environment where your kids can make healthy nutritional choices is one of the most important steps you can take to ensure the health of your child.
By fostering a supportive environment, you and your family can develop a positive relationship with healthy food. You can lead them by your example.
Here are 10 tips for getting children to eat healthy food and form wise nutritional habits, offered by Melinda Sothern, PhD, co-author of Trim Kids and director of the childhood obesity prevention laboratory at Louisiana State University.
1. Avoid placing restrictions on food.
Restricting food increases the risk your child may develop eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia later in life. It can also have a negative effect on growth and development. Instead of banning foods, talk about all the healthy, nutritional options there are — encouraging your family to chose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy, while avoiding heavily processed, low-quality junk foods.
2. Keep healthy food at hand.
Children will eat what’s available. Keep fruit in a bowl on the counter, not buried in the crisper section of your fridge. Remember, your child can only choose foods that you stock in the house. And have an apple for your own snack. “Your actions scream louder than anything you will ever tell them,” says Sothern.
3. Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad.”
Instead, tie foods to the things your child cares about, such as sports or doing well in school. Let your child know that lean protein such as turkey and calcium in dairy products give them strength for sports. The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables add luster to skin and hair. And eating a healthy breakfast can help them keep focus in class.
4. Praise healthy choices.
Give your children a proud smile and praise when they choose healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or low-fat dairy.
5. Don’t nag about unhealthy choices.
When children choose fatty, fried, unhealthy foods, redirect them by suggesting a healthier option.
- Instead of regular potato chips and dip, offer baked tortilla chips and salsa.
- If your child wants candy, try dipping fresh strawberries in a little chocolate sauce. Too busy? Keep naturally sweet dried fruit at home for quick snacks.
- Instead of buying French fries, try roasting cut up potatoes in the oven (tossed in just a bit of oil).
6. Never use food as a reward.
This could create weight problems in later life. Instead, reward your children with something physical and fun — perhaps a trip to the park or a quick game of catch.
7. Sit down to family dinners at night.
If this isn’t a tradition in your home, make it one. Research shows that children who eat dinners at the table with their parents have better nutrition and are less likely to get in serious trouble as teenagers. Start with one night a week, and then work up to three or four, to gradually build the habit.
8. Prepare plates in the kitchen.
You can put the right portion of each item on everyone’s dinner plate, instead of offering up a food buffet or serve-yourself style. This way your children will learn to recognize healthy portion sizes. If adjusting to healthier portion sizes means smaller portions for your family, help make the switch seem less shocking by using smaller plates.
9. Give the kids some control.
Ask your children to take three bites of all the foods on their plate and give each one a grade, such as A, B, C, D, or F. When healthy foods — especially certain vegetables — get high marks, serve them more often. Offer the items your children don’t like less frequently. This lets your children participate in decision-making. After all, dining is a family affair.
10. Consult your pediatrician.
Always talk with your child’s doctor before putting your child on a weight loss diet, trying to help your child gain weight, or making any significant changes in the type of foods your child eats. Never diagnose your child as too heavy or too thin by yourself.
“It’s all about gradual changes. It’s not overnight, and it’s an uphill battle for parents,” Sothern tells WebMD. “Everything outside of the home is trying to make kids overweight. The minute they walk out of the home, there are people trying to make them eat too much and serving them too much.”
The food smarts your children will learn from you can protect them for a lifetime.