Guide to Encouraging Good Eating Habits in Children

Guide to Encouraging Good Eating Habits in Children

Whether you’ve resolved to get healthier yourself or you want to make sure your child enjoys a long, healthy life, instilling good eating habits while your child is young is an important step.

Sometimes encouraging kids to eat healthy presents a challenge. It seems like every other commercial is for a fast food place, candy bar, or new salty treat. Throw in the picky eating habits of a child and your own busy schedule, and it may seem like an impossible goal.

This doesn’t have to be the case! Read on to discover some simple tips and tricks to turn your French fry-loving tot into a happily healthful eater.

Be a Good Role Model

Children naturally mimic the behaviors and attitudes of the authority figures in their lives. You can use this power to promote healthy, positive behaviors in your child.

It starts with your attitude about food and exercise. If your kids see you enjoying healthy foods and modeling an active lifestyle, they’ll feel that it’s a natural part of life. On the other hand, if they see you spending most of your time sitting in front of the TV, munching on potato chips and drinking sugary sodas, they’ll think that’s the natural thing to do.

If you worry that that ship has sailed because your child has already witnessed years of your bad eating habits, don’t worry. You can still turn it around. Have an honest talk with your child. Tell him or her that you haven’t been as focused on eating as healthy as we should, but that you’re excited now to get healthy.

The keyword there is “excited.” Don’t address these changes as something you “have” to do because the doctor said so. Make it clear that this is something that you want to do, and that you look forward to trying something new and going on this adventure together.

Send the message that healthy eating is important and your kids will respond in a positive way.

Take the Kids Grocery Shopping

Create your shopping list around a week’s worth of menus. Let your kids get involved in designing the menu and consider any healthy food suggestions they offer. Making them part of the process helps invest them in it emotionally, which is a key component of long-term success.

When it’s time to head to the store, bring the kids. This is a great way to teach them about budgeting, planning meals, and smart shopping (in an age-appropriate way). It doesn’t have to feel like a lesson, either. Just like modeling healthy behaviors for your kids, modeling smart shopping habits is a natural way to teach them important skills they’ll use the rest of their lives.

Make Mealtime Family Time

Mealtime starts in the kitchen, with meal preparation. As often as you can, involve the kids when it’s time to cook, and sit down together when it’s time to eat.

Almost without exception, food cooked at home is healthier than food from a restaurant, as it usually has less fat, salt and sugar. Get your kids involved with its preparation, whether they’re standing beside you stirring and adding ingredients, or sitting at the counter, doing their homework and talking to you while you cook.

Involving your children in the preparation of meals helps them feel connected to their food in a way that simply setting a plate down in front of them never will. They will understand what goes into creating it; the time and attention that cooking requires. What’s more, when they help in the actual cooking, they want to eat the finished product, even if it’s Brussels sprouts instead of chocolate chip cookies.

Once the meal is ready, make it part of your family routine to set the table and eat together. This is a great time to talk to each other about your day, if your kids are old enough to do so, and make an emotional connection.

You can also easily monitor portion sizes. If you’re not sure what constitutes a serving size, check out the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate. It presents a visual guide to how much space each food item should fill on a standard dinner plate.

Finally, never insist that your children “clean” their plates. It’s okay to enforce taking at least a bite or two of everything, to make sure your kids eat their vegetables and try new foods. However, forcing them to eat everything you put in front of them helps create a lifetime habit of overeating. If your children regularly leave food behind, you may be feeding them too much. Try cutting back on portion sizes.

Eat Real Food

One of the keys of healthy eating is knowing what you’re putting in your body. Today, this means understanding the nutritional values of the foods you eat, as well as what your kids eat.

The USDA offers users their dietary guidelines. Used in conjunction with the Choose My Plate application, understanding what constitutes a balanced diet has never been easier. Basically, it calls for a diet loaded with fruits and vegetables, with modest servings of complex carbohydrates and lean protein, as well as modest servings of dairy products like cheese, milk, and yogurt. Use fats and sugars sparingly.

The best, most healthy way to meet these guidelines is by eating real food. What does that mean? Avoid processed, prepackaged food as much as possible. Instead, buy fresh meat, dairy and produce. You can purchase frozen produce when fresh is not available.

If time is the issue, consider preparing larger meals and then either freezing or storing half in the fridge for “leftover night.” It doesn’t take much more time to make two casseroles or an extra-large pot of stew, and the result is two meals instead of one.

Also, use a Crockpot or slow cooker to make roasts, soups, chili, and more. Finally, prepare a variety of foods ahead of time for healthy meals on the go. This can include items like boiled eggs for a quick, healthy protein at breakfast or snack time, and chopped veggies for a quick snack or to throw in the pot.

Find Alternatives to Junk Food

Besides taste, one of the appeals of junk food is the fact that it’s fast and easy. Just grab a bag of chips, open it up, and start eating. Unfortunately, that bag of chips is full of fat, sodium, and preservatives.

The same is true for fast food, ice cream, candy, and just about anything deep-fried. Luckily, there are tasty, healthier alternatives for just about any guilty pleasure food.

For example, you can replace French fries with baked fries. Slice potatoes (sweet potatoes are a great, high-fiber alternative), lightly spray them with cooking spray, add a sprinkle of your favorite spices, and bake in the oven. All the flavor of French fries without the guilt.

Craving ice cream? Try frozen yogurt, sorbet, or fresh fruit smoothies. You can even do these less expensively with frozen berries. You can also make easy popsicles and frozen fruit bars.

Want a special dessert treat? Replace cookies with fig bars, graham crackers, fresh strawberries with a sprinkle (less than a teaspoon) of sugar, or apple slices and caramel dip.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should never eat these guilty pleasure foods again. If you completely outlaw treats, you and your children will overindulge the first chance you get. Practice moderation and portion control. Don’t buy a carton of ice cream. Instead, take a walk to a local place for a single serving of your favorite dessert. This means you get the treat, plus a bit of exercise, and don’t have the leftovers sitting in the freezer tempting you later.

Introducing New Foods

About now you may be thinking, “Sure, this all sounds great, but how do I get my kid to actually eat this stuff?”

First, practice patience when introducing your child to new foods. The reality is that you usually need to “introduce” a child to something up to 10 times before he or she finally accepts it as a new diet staple.

Next, introduce only one food at a time. Your pediatrician likely recommended this when your child first started eating, as it made discovering food allergies easier. It also works here. Giving your child a plate full of foods he or she has never eaten before will likely result in a refusal to eat. A better idea is to make one healthy change to a familiar, favorite meal.

This is also where having your child’s help in the kitchen helps you when it’s time to eat. If your kids helped make it, they’ll be excited to eat it.

Keep it Up

Implementing new habits takes perseverance. You may hit roadblocks along the way, and that’s okay. In time, healthy eating will become the norm for you and your children, and that’s the ultimate goal. You want your kids to continue eating this way, and even teach their own children these habits.

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