Children aren’t born knowing what is healthy for them and what is not. It’s natural to want to give children foods they like, and also to be worried when they don’t eat the food placed in front of them.
Just like other habits, healthy eating has to be learned. Here are 10 easy tips for raising healthy eaters in your home.
1. Start Early
It is amazing how the eating habits of babies and toddlers can end up lasting a lifetime in both good and bad ways.
A baby whose parents make him/her finish an entire bottle every time can lose the ability to listen to his or her own hunger cues. Babies know when they are full. They don’t know what overeating or eating out of boredom is — yet. Don’t force-feed.
Likewise, a toddler who gets lots of fruits and vegetables from the start will think of them as normal, yummy foods as opposed to foods they’re being forced to eat.
2. Serve Healthy Food Options
This may seem obvious, but many families do not routinely include fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods in their meals — and even those who do may leave them off of their child’s plate because "the child doesn’t like them."
It is important to serve these types of healthy foods regardless and to keep them on the plate. Encourage the child to try at least one bite each time. It can take a number of tries before a child realizes that broccoli isn’t so bad after all. Just keep setting out healthy options like berries, carrots, celery, radishes, hummus, guacamole, etc. — and eventually curiosity may win out.
3. Don’t be a Short-Order Cook
Many parents serve one meal for themselves and another one for their child. Some even make separate meals for each child or additional meals if the first one gets rejected. If you do that, there is no incentive for the child to try something new. Of course, food allergies would be an exception.
4. Set a Schedule and Stick to It
Once your child is eating solid meals (somewhere around 12 months of age), make a schedule to include three healthy meals and two healthy snacks each day. Snacks can be between breakfast and lunch and again between lunch and dinner.
If your child doesn’t eat within 20 to 30 minutes of being served, take it away and don’t serve them anything else except water until the next scheduled snack or meal. After awhile, your child will figure out that if they don’t eat what you serve, they will be hungry.
It may not be easy at first, but kids are very responsive to training like this. Consistency is key.
5. Limit Snacking
Snacking is also a habit. Not all kids need snacks between meals. They know when they are full, so don’t force them to eat snacks just because "it's time."
Outside of the established (scheduled) snack times, children should not be hunting for food in the cabinets or refrigerator. Encourage your child to drink a full glass of water when he or she asks for extra snacks. Food cravings can often be appeased with hydration.
6. Watch the Drink and Fruit Intake
Fruit is a great snack, but consuming too much fruit can lead to excess sugar intake.
Any fruit eaten in moderation is great. Berries tend to spike the blood sugar much less than other fruits. Look for what is in season and use small servings as snacks.
Fruit and veggie smoothies are good, too! Other drinks, however, such as juices, can be high in sugar and can cut your child's appetite for healthy food. Stick with water and good quality, organic, grass-fed milk or nut milk, but again, limit the sugar.
7. Think About What You’re Buying
If there is no junk food in the house, it’s a lot harder to eat it.
The same goes for soda and sweets. Stock your house with healthy options instead.
Avoid sugar, too much dairy and starches like pasta and rice that aren’t whole-grain. Foods like oats, eggs, grain-free chips (such as Siete chips), etc., are easy to fix and have on hand.
Make sure you’re serving good quality proteins and healthy fats with each meal to ensure feeling satisfied and full. Read labels and remember that the fewer ingredients, the better.
Just because something claims to be gluten-free or organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. There are organic gummy bears on the shelves, after all.
8. Set a Good Example
Kids always pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If you are eating a variety of healthy foods, getting some exercise and trying new things, they will want to imitate your good habits.
9. Have Family Dinners
Not only is this a great way to set an example and ensure that children eat what is good for them, but family dinners also are good for relationships and for child development.
The dinner table is a great place to ask open-ended questions and set a model for what a family should be. You can find all kinds of fun conversation starters online. Put your phones away, turn off the TV and spend quality time together.
10. Shop and Cook Together
Shopping with kids can be stressful, but, at least every now and then, take time to do it for their sake.
Show them why bad choices are bad, read labels together, talk about sugar and shop the outer rim of the store. Visiting farmers markets together is another great option. Your kids don't just automatically know what is healthy and what isn’t. You have to teach them.
In addition, preparing meals together can be a great lesson. If you can, grow food together, even if you just have enough space for some herbs. Make healthy eating a fun, shared experience.
Integrative Health Matters is a whole-health practice in Tyler, Texas, dedicated to healing in every area of our patients' lives. For more information, go to ihm.life.