The older our kids get, the harder it gets to change eating behaviors. Fostering positive eating attitudes and behaviors from a young age can help prevent eating problems down the road. Dr. Melanie Bean,director of clinical and behavioral services for CHoR’s Healthy Lifestyles Center, recommends fostering healthy eating behaviors as early as possible: “If you help children develop healthy eating habits at a young age, when they venture out into the world – which has far more pressure to be unhealthy than it does to be healthy – they are well-equipped to make better choices.” Dr. Bean shares her favorite tips, techniques and considerations for raising healthy eaters below.
In general, limit eating to three meals and one or two snacks/day at predictable times. These predictable eating times help children know limits around food. If you’re having trouble dealing with requests for food outside of mealtime, try strategies like reminding your child when the next time for eating will be or letting them know that water is always an option. Distraction can be a helpful strategy too. (“It’s not time for a snack, come on let’s do this puzzle together.”) Tiny tummies that fill up on too many snacks will not be hungry for meals.
Parents and children have different jobs with eating and feeding. The parent decides what to eat and when it’s time to eat; the child decides if and how much they will eat. If we respect our children’s jobs (to eat or not eat), children will learn to eat at the appropriate times, and will pay attention to what their bodies are telling them about how hungry/full they are. We can avoid the power struggle around food by not engaging in the fight (and also not supplementing with snacks later). Children will learn to eat during set meal and snack times if we remain firm (but also warm and understanding).
Try to not pressure children to eat or reward children for eating (such as with dessert). When it comes to mealtime or snacking, teach children to self-regulate, or learn to recognize and pay attention to cues from their body related to hunger and satiety (“feeling full”). By pressuring kids to eat “just one more bite of your broccoli,” we might create food aversions, enter into power struggles, and teach kids to eat due to the pressure (or the desire for dessert) instead of due to their bodies. Try these phrases that can help children learn to recognize they are full and help support other healthy eating behaviors.
Don’t make dessert dependent on whether kids ate their dinner. Instead, look at how many treats they’ve had that day and involve them in the discussion about whether it’s OK to have more treats.
Promote independent decision-making. Present appropriate options and let your child choose among them. For example, “Would you like an apple or a banana in your lunch?” It can also be helpful to get your child involved in the meal preparation or planning.
Cancel your membership in the clean your plate club. Children should be encouraged to stop eating when they are full. Forcing children to clean their plates makes them not pay attention to what their bodies are telling them about feeling full.
Be media savvy. Pay attention to what your child is viewing on TV. Did you know that most commercials on children’s programs are for high calorie, processed sugar-filled foods? Marketers pay big money so your child will be attracted to their product. Make choices in the store based on nutrition labels, not based on cartoon characters.
Limit sugared drinks (including juice) to almost none. Encourage water and low fat milk instead.
Keep in mind that it can take 8-12 times for a child to like a new food. Don’t let one (or several) refusals limit what you serve your children. If you no longer serve it, you are limiting their nutrients/variety. By continuing to present “refused” foods (without pressure to eat them), along with ones you know your child likes, we provide opportunities for them to smell, taste or eat them at another occasion – and then we can praise them for trying! Vary how you present the food. Respect that children are new to eating and new things can be scary!
Don’t be a short order cook. If you make separate meals for each child, or different meals for the adults and the kids, your children won’t expand their food preferences. Instead, they will learn that they can refuse the food and then get the preferred food. Serving “family style” can help ensure there is variety on the table if there are allergies or other differences to consider.
Have the same general rules for every child in the family. While there are of course differences, for the most part be as consistent as possible.
Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad.” If you do this, children associate being “bad” (which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame) with eating a forbidden food. Help children learn that it is OK to eat all foods in moderation.
Limit the use of food as rewards. Try hugs, special time with a parent, etc. Similarly, limit the use of food to manage an emotion. Using food to reward a child or to help manage an emotion (e.g., when they are sad or bored) reduces attention to hunger and satiety cues and instead teaches children to eat for other reasons. Be aware of what you are role modeling in this area too.
Eat meals as a family with screens off. Mealtime together is not only good for family bonding; it’s also a good opportunity to model healthy eating behaviors.
Be a good role model in terms of your own eating behaviors. The best predictor of a child’s fruit and vegetable intake is a parent’s fruit and vegetable intake. What we do as parents carries much more weight than what we say!
Model healthy “body talk.” How are you taking about your body? Do you use phrases like: “Do these pants make my butt look big?” or “I feel so fat!”? Studies show that children as young as age 3 know that “fat is bad.”
Promote a healthy body image. Reinforce what your child can DO with their body, not what it looks like. Try “Those strong legs took you all the way up those stairs!” or “Look how high you can reach with those arms!” versus commenting on being “pretty” or appearance-focused. Even preschoolers feel pressure to look a certain way.
How about a $50 Whole Foods gift card* to help kick off a healthy New Year? Hop on over to Facebook and comment on the healthy eaters post for a chance to win. Subscribe to our blog for an additional chance to win!**
*VCU and VCUHS employees are not eligible to win – but are encouraged to participate. **Contest ends January 19.