We all want to raise healthy eaters by establishing good habits that will stay with our children for the rest of their lives. But with us now having to navigate through a sea of distractions and interruptions around mealtimes, plus sift through the wide availability of highly processed “kid-friendly” meals, it can be hard to help guide our children on the right path.
To help you on your quest to ensure your children are developing good habits, here’s our top 10 list of ways to raise healthy eaters!
1. Model good behaviour
This might be one of the most important things you do in all aspects of parenting, and it certainly counts when it comes to eating habits. You can’t expect your kids to grow up to love their veggies if they hear you complaining about them. After all, why should they have to eat them if dad doesn’t?
This doesn’t only apply to vegetables. It applies to all things food/health-related. They see you enjoying good, healthy food? It becomes a normal part of life to enjoy good, healthy food. They see you getting out there and having fun playing a sport you enjoy? Great – they’ll also think it’s natural to get active in a way they enjoy. They see you counting calories, cutting carbs, and obsessing over your weight? That becomes a normal part of life for them too. They see you punishing yourself by heading to the gym? They associate exercise with punishment and don’t see it as enjoyable. Of course these aren’t hard and fast rules, but they are more common than you might think. Be aware of what you’re telling your kids through your actions.
2. Follow the division of responsibility (Ellyn Satter)
Parents, your job is to decide:
- What to offer to eat (the food that will be served)
- When to offer food (meal and snack times)
- Where meals and snacks will take place (at the table, not in front of the TV)
Let your kids decide:
- Whether they will eat
- How much of what is offered they will eat
Although it is your job as a parent to decide what food to offer and when, it is NOT your job to be a “short-order” cook! Preparing special meals for different family members, or allowing your children to refuse food initially offered and prepare them something else, can encourage picky eating habits. Plus, it’s stressful for you! Make sure there is something healthy on the table that you know your child likes, and encourage everyone to try new things without making it forceful. If they don’t eat a ton at one meal, they’ll make it up later. Of course, if there are allergies or conditions that require specially prepared food, this is a different story.
It is not your job as a parent to tell your child how much they should eat OR to force them to eat if they don’t want to! As long as you provide a variety of healthy foods at structured times in an appropriate environment, leave it at that. Forcing kids to eat when they don’t want to can create food battles, and can teach kids to ignore their hunger cues. They know when they’re hungry and when they’ve had enough; we’re all born with it! It’s something we’ve been taught to ignore over the years, and we can all take a lesson from young kids on this. If you are worried that your child isn’t eating enough because they’re not growing properly, be sure to check in with their pediatrician or make an appointment with your Dietitian.
3. Food is not a reward or a punishment
Using food as a reward or a punishment creates “good” foods and “bad” foods. It also teaches children that to not like ‘punishing’ foods, and that there is something special or magical about ‘reward’ foods. This can also teach kids to ignore their hunger cues and eat when they’re not hungry. Having treats is a normal part of a healthy, balanced life, but they shouldn’t be provided as rewards for good behaviour or special achievements.
4. Eat family meals
Part of healthy eating is enjoying food, sharing a meal, being mindful, and socializing during a meal. There is a lot of research that demonstrates the psychological benefits of eating family meals** (see below) Part of your role as a parent is to teach proper food etiquette and socialization, and family meals are important of this. This allows you to model appropriate table manners, plus demonstrates how to serve yourself, use cutlery, and allows time for family connection and mindfully enjoying a meal together. Don’t eat in front of the TV or other distractions.
5. Don’t comment on weight (yours, theirs OR anyone’s)
Daughters who grow up with mothers who diet are much more likely to end up with poor body image and eating disorders. Believe it or not, weight is not something you can fully control, and it’s important to teach your kids that there isn’t one certain type of desirable body. You don’t know what body type your child will end up with, and teaching them to strive for something that is not natural for them can create all sorts of unhealthy eating habits (ex. restricting, binging, purging). It can also create poor self-image and self-esteem. Teach them to value parts of themselves that they can control, like being kind, friendly, and honest. Be sure to also teach them healthy behaviours they can control, like enjoying exercise, eating healthy foods, and listening to hunger cues.
6. Kids don’t need “special” foods
Enough said. Do not use kids (or grand-kids) as an excuse to keep “food” that is highly processed and low in nutrients. Teach kids to eat stuff like this from the start, and of course they’re not going to want to switch to less palatable adult food later on. There is no reason that your kids should be eating Kraft dinner when you’re eating chicken with veggies and rice. Don’t get their taste buds used to salty, sugary processed foods. Teach them to enjoy whole, healthy, real foods, and to enjoy a treat once in a while.
7. Encourage a wide variety right from the start
It can take many exposures to a new food before kids want to try it, or before they decide it’s acceptable. Keep at it and don’t give up! Start with a wide variety of flavours and textures from a young age and they’ll be less likely to be picky later on (remember you need to model this too!)
8. Have structured meal times/snacks
It is your responsibility to decide when meals and snacks will be and to offer nutritious foods during these times, but not in between meals. If you let kids graze between meals and choose what they eat, it teaches them that if they hold out through meal time and don’t eat, they might be able to get something they like better as a snack later.
Eventually they will eat, even if it’s a little. Do make sure that you offer something at each meal that you know your child likes so they have at least something they want to eat.
9. Let them eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full
We are all born with the innate ability to know when we need to eat, and stop when we’ve had enough. It’s something that we’re too often taught to ignore. How many adults do you know who know when they’re hungry, eat until they’re satisfied but not too full? Far too often we “un-learn” how to eat to our hunger cues and instead teach ourselves to eat until we finish our plate, because it’s polite, because it’s 12 o clock, or deny ourselves even though we’re hungry to shave off a few calories. We could all learn from kids on this one… listen to your body. It knows!
10. Get kids involved in grocery shopping and cooking from a young age!
Involvement in choosing and creating meals builds important skills for later in life, but also builds a sense of pride and contribution to family meal times. Allowing children to help contribute to choosing and preparing the meal encourages them to try new foods and to enjoy the foods they helped to select. It also helps to take away from any power struggles around meals, as the children are allowed to be involved in making their own choices and given some responsibility. Choose age-appropriate tasks (click here for some ideas) and make it fun!
** The psychological benefits of family meals
Written by Amra Dizdarevic, Family Health Nurse Practitioner
- For young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to (1000 rare words learned at the dinner table, vs 143 learned when parents read storybooks aloud). Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.
- For school-age children, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art.
- For adolescents, there is a consistent association between family dinner frequency and teen academic performance. Young adults who eat regular family meals as teens are less likely to be obese and more likely to eat healthily once they live on their own. There are many studies showing a link between regular family dinners with lowering multiple high risk teenage behaviors: smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity. There are lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. In a very recent study, kids who had been victims of cyber bullying bounced back more readily if they had regular family dinners.