How You Can Help Your Child Develop Healthy Eating Habits

Dr. Jessica Bachman
Director of Nutrition Education

Food & Nutrition

As a mom of two young children, I want nothing more than to set my kids up with all the tools needed to live their healthiest, happiest life. Part of that involves allowing them to develop an appropriate relationship with food and activity. Research clearly shows that the eating and exercise habits we build as children oftentimes follow us into adulthood. No pressure to get it all right from the start moms and dads 🙂

The most recent data on childhood obesity rates in the United States have shown that after a few years of celebrating a stabilization in prevalence, we are unfortunately again experiencing sharp increases in childhood obesity rates. The causes of childhood obesity are complex and explanations range from genetics to mom gaining too much weight during pregnancy to environmental factors that we can’t control and lifestyle choices that we can. The “factor” that is often considered to be the most influential on a child’s weight status is their home food environment AND their parents.

One of the most important facets in molding our children into healthy little beings is to first strive to be so ourselves. Like most things in life, our children tend to mimic the things they see us do. Why would your daughter try the asparagus if you aren’t eating it yourself? Why would your son choose to do something active after dinner if you sit down at the TV as soon as the dishes are done? We have the power to not only tell our children about healthy habits BUT most importantly we can SHOW them. They are ALWAYS watching.

Beyond being a good role model, parents also have the opportunity to influence their children’s eating habits in many other ways.

Some of the techniques that I have used with my children come from Ellen Satter and her division of responsibilities for feeding. This philosophy was developed to encourage parents to take responsibility for certain aspects of eating such as what is being served, when it is being served and where it is being served while still allowing a child to listen to internal hunger and satiety cues and decided how much they will eat as well as whether they choose to eat at any particular meal or snack.

Parents need to take the lead on determining what foods will be served because we are not inherently born with a mechanism that encourages us to like or reach for “healthy” food options. We have to develop those preferences over time. If I let my children plan the weekly menu we’d be eating pancakes every morning for breakfast, mac and cheese for lunch, pizza for dinner and chocolate ice cream for dessert….with some chocolate milk and cookies thrown in for snacks.

As children age, they should get more and more involved with determining the what by helping with things like

  • Making selections between having broccoli or cauliflower for dinner
  • Choosing the apples from the bins at the store
  • Helping with washing and preparing lettuce for salads

As they grow older they can gradually take more and more responsibility for the what as they transition into young adulthood.

  • The when food is served refers to the responsibility of the parents to ensure that regular meals and snacks are made available.

Children do better with structured meals times such as breakfast at 8am, snack at 10am, lunch at 1230pm, snack at 3pm, etc.  If a young child is allowed free range overeating whenever they want, they oftentimes will choose to snack constantly throughout the day. The main issue with this eating pattern is that foods that are offered as snacks are often times less nutrient-dense options such as cookies, crackers and chips whereas meals tend to be more nutrient-dense options like veggies and lean meats. If a child has the option to drink juice all day and snack on crackers, they are going to chose that over waiting to eat the “healthier” meals.

  • The where refers to the location that food is consumed and ties into a strong line of research that shows that children in families who eat meals at the dinner table together have healthier diets.

I’m making my kids sounds bad here but…if it was their choice, all meals would be served in front of the TV. Mealtime together as a family is also more important than just a list of nutrients. It’s also a time for family bonding and socialization; both things that are important for a child’s development in a variety of ways beyond just nutrition. So what is a parent to do? Make a rule that all eating of food must occur at the kitchen table. That will help limit snacking all day AND will encourage more mindful enjoyment of food with others.

  • Where parents need to allow their children to lead the way is to determine how much they eat and whether they choose to eat a provided meal or snack.

As infants, we are born with the ability to very tightly self-regulate exactly how much we need to eat to grow in a healthy, appropriate manner. We give cues for when we are hungry and then stop eating when we are full. Young toddlers are still quite good at this as well and they will continue to appropriately regulate their intake as long as we allow them. BUT external influences like well-intentioned parents making their children clean their plates or children being forced into eating when there is a scheduled time whether hungry or not teaches them overtime to no longer trust or respond to their instincts.

If all adults continue to eat like infants (eat when hungry, stop when full), we would no longer have an obesity epidemic. BUT our society and overall eating environment does not encourage us to eat in that way. By the time a child is 5 or 6, they eat in response to external cues more often than listening to their own bodies. So, as parents, it’s important that we respect a child’s word when they say they aren’t hungry or that they really are full after only a few bites of food to encourage them to respond to internal cues for as long as possible.

Another issue that many parents struggle with is getting their kids to eat “healthy” foods. Again, the most important way a parent can encourage a child to eat their fruits and veggies is to eat them themselves. Parents also need to recognize that sometimes it just takes a few introductions (some research suggest a minimum of 10-12 exposures) to a new food for a child to accept it. So, keep putting those veggies on their plates and eventually as they keep seeing how much you love em, they will come around to trying and loving them as well. Being creative with exposures can help too! Counting raspberries on your fingers or playing with raw veggies and blocks all count as exposures to that food as well so get creative and have fun with food!

Finally, reduce the pressure you place on your child during meal and snack times. Allow them to say no if they don’t want to try a new food that way they will feel empowered to say YES when they are ready.

We serve as our children’s first role models and teachers. We plan on helping out in a major way through our Stronger Youth initiative, but until then, show them the way and then trust that you did your part and watch them grow into their own healthy, active young adults.

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