One of the most common concerns pediatricians hear from parents is about nutrition for their children. From fad foods to changing dietary guidelines, it can be daunting to know how and what to feed your family. But you don’t need a degree in nutrition to raise kids with healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime.
Following some simple guidelines can encourage your kids to eat right. “Parents have such an impact on the eating habits of their children,” says Jenny Davis, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic in Rancho Bernardo. “Advocating and modeling healthy lifestyles in a loving way goes a long way toward teaching kids to be healthy eaters.”
Try these tips to encourage your kids to develop healthy habits.
1. Be a role model
Preschoolers love to copy what their parents do and are likely to mimic your food preferences and eating habits, so make healthy choices in front of them.
2. Cook with your children
Have fun in the kitchen with your kids. Give them their own aprons, cooking and baking utensils. Cut food into easy and fun shapes with cookie cutters, or encourage your child to invent new snacks.
3. Choose healthy foods
Keep your household stocked with food choices that are good for your family, such as air-popped popcorn, fruit, unsalted nuts, unsweetened yogurt and cut-up carrots. If salty potato chips and cookies are consistently offered, they will become the snack of choice.
“If their favorite snack isn’t that nutritious, you can still buy it once a while so your kids don’t feel deprived,” says Dr. Davis.
4. Drink water
Make water the drink of choice in your household.
5. Grow your own
Growing vegetables and herbs at home can be a fun way to teach children where food comes from and encourages a varied diet. Kids are more likely to snack on broccoli or tomatoes if they’ve helped to plant and pick them. If you don’t have a yard, pots or window boxes can be just as effective.
6. Eat together
Eat regular meals as a family at the table and make mealtimes a place for sharing and conversation, not a time for scolding or arguing.
“Try not to use meals as a venue for stressful conversations or to settle problems,” says Dr. Davis. “Mealtime should be a way to reconnect after the day.”
Discourage eating meals or snacks while watching TV, which makes it more challenging to pay attention to your body’s cues and may lead to overeating.
7. Don’t give up
Serve fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack so these become your kids’ go-to foods. Remember that kids end up preferring the flavors they’re exposed to the most, and the more times they are offered a food, the more likely they will warm up to it.
“Kids typically have to taste a new food several times before they begin to like it,” says Dr. Davis. “They usually are more likely to try a new food if they’re eating in a setting that’s relaxed and pleasant.”
A good tactic to try is to tell them that tasting new foods is a sure sign that they are getting big and growing up. Or take them shopping and let them choose a new healthy food to serve at home.
8. Teach about feelings of fullness
Children under the age of 3 tend to stop eating on their own when they’re full, but after that they take their cues from what is on their plate, and the more you put on their plate, the more they’ll eat. Teach your kids to listen to their stomachs and to ask themselves questions about quantity and quality, such as “Is my tummy full?” or “Will I feel sick if I eat those extra potatoes?”
Allow your child to stop eating when they feel they are full, even if you are worried that they are not eating enough.
“Work together as a family to make healthy habits easy and fun.” says Dr. Davis. “You won’t regret it.”