Raising healthy eaters from a young age is a crucial aspect of promoting overall well-being and instilling lifelong habits that contribute to physical and mental health. The foundation for a healthy relationship with food is laid during childhood, and parents play a pivotal role in shaping their children's attitudes and behaviors toward nutrition.
However, if you have a selective eater on your hands, you may struggle at mealtime to ensure they’re getting a balanced diet. We spoke with Denice Taylor, a registered dietitian nutritionist on the staff at Texas Health Arlington, to get her insight on strategies that families can employ
to foster healthy eating habits in children.
Lead by Example
Children are highly influenced by the behavior of those around them, particularly their parents. One of the most effective ways to encourage healthy eating is by modeling it yourself. Demonstrate a positive attitude toward a balanced diet, showcasing a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins in your own meals.
It’s important for children to see their parents taking pleasure in food. If your children see you’re enjoying it, they may be more likely to try and enjoy it, too.
Make Mealtime Enjoyable & Encourage Mindful Eating
Believe it or not, research shows that families that eat at least three times a week together, without any distractions such as the TV, tablets or cellphones, are happier and healthier, says Taylor. Sit down together as a family whenever possible, and make meals a time for conversation and connection.
Eating together as a family can promote bonding, aid in social and emotional development, and encourage healthier eating habits, especially if modeled by parents or older siblings. In fact, studies show that kids of families that eat together tend to eat less fast food and more fruits and vegetables.
“Studies show that the consumption of protein, calcium, vegetables, and fruits can improve when encouraged by family members,” Taylor says. “So parents and older siblings can serve as a role model for good nutrition during these meal times together!”
And parents, there are benefits for you too! One study found that parents who participate in family dinners have higher levels of self-esteem and lower rates of depression and stress.
While Taylor notes it may not be realistic for everyone to eat together every night, try to make family dinners a priority as often as you can and with as many members of the family as possible.
Here are some tips to encourage a distraction-free meal:
- Make the dinner table a no-phone zone.
- Engage in conversation around the table by asking fun, thought-provoking questions. For example, if you could have any kind of animal for a pet, what would it be and why? You can also take turns, having each family member come up with a question.
- Give each family member a task, such as helping with cooking, setting the table, or doing dishes.
Taylor adds that it’s important to limit screen time during meals because it can contribute to mindless eating and poor food choices. Set limits on screen time and encourage children to focus on their meals without distractions. This promotes a mindful approach to eating and enhances the overall dining experience.
This also opens up time to teach children to listen to their bodies and recognize hunger and fullness cues. Encourage them to eat when they're hungry and to stop when they're satisfied.
“If your child does not want to eat at that time or tells you they’re full, trust that your child is not hungry or that they’re full,” Taylor adds.
Discourage eating out of boredom or as a response to emotional triggers. Developing mindful eating habits helps foster a healthy relationship with food and prevents overeating.
Introduce a Variety of Foods
Expose children to a diverse range of foods early on. This not only ensures they receive a wide array of nutrients but also helps develop their taste preferences. Include fruits and vegetables of different colors, textures, and flavors in their meals. Gradually introduce various grains, proteins, and dairy products to provide a well-rounded nutritional profile.
An easy way to accomplish this is to introduce these items in small portions.
“Make sure you include one food you know your child likes in addition to the new foods,” Taylor says. “It is normal for children to go through phases when it comes to food. What they don’t like today, they may like tomorrow and vice versa!”
Additionally, encourage the habit of drinking water throughout the day. Limit sugary drinks and sodas, and make water the primary beverage of choice. Proper hydration is essential for overall health and can contribute to better concentration, energy levels, and digestion.
Celebrating cultural and family food traditions can also be a fun way to introduce children to a variety of cuisines, emphasizing the diversity of flavors and ingredients. Exploring different foods can broaden their palates and instill an appreciation for a wide range of culinary experiences.
Involve Children in Meal Preparation
Another way to help your child explore new foods and have a relationship with their food is to get them involved in the process of preparing meals. This not only fosters a sense of responsibility but also helps them understand where their food comes from.
Allow them to participate in age-appropriate tasks such as washing vegetables, stirring ingredients, or setting the table. This involvement can make them more invested in the food they eat.
Be Patient with Selective Eaters
Selective eating (SE), or “picky eating,” is common in young children. It's not uncommon for children to go through phases of liking and disliking certain foods, even if it’s something they’ve never tried before.
Be patient and avoid pressuring them to eat certain foods. When looking for strategies to help your child try new foods, it is best to avoid the following:
- Bribing them to eat certain foods
- Catering to your child’s food choices
- Punishing or rewarding them for eating specific foods
You want to be sure that you don’t send the wrong message when it comes to your child’s relationship with food. If a food requires a bribe to eat, what does that say about eating that food? If you find yourself punishing your child around eating specific foods, the punishment is what sticks with the child more than the value of the food.
Instead, offer a variety of options, and allow them to choose from the available nutritious choices. Gradually reintroduce rejected foods in different forms or preparations to increase their acceptance.
Opt for meals that can be “deconstructed” and everyone can personalize what exactly goes on their plate. For instance, if you decide to have a taco night with ground turkey, chicken or a plant-based protein, separate out toppings so everyone can pick and choose what they’d like to add, and how much they’d like to eat. You can still encourage members to try a small amount of a new food or veggies, but it still allows everyone to get on board in a way they feel comfortable with.
Try Not to Entice Healthier Habits with Dessert
We know you’re wondering about dessert and treats. It’s not uncommon to promise a sweet treat in exchange for a child eating something they don’t want to eat. In fact, it may have even worked on you when you were a kiddo, so it may be tempting to do so with your own kids, but Taylor says using dessert as a reward can have the opposite effect.
“It’s best not to use food or sweets as a reward as this type of behavior becomes learned and expected, and once that happens, it is difficult to change,” she explains. “Instead, try using non-food-related rewards, such as allowing children time to do things with family members that they want to do, such as playing a game.”
Acknowledge and celebrate small achievements in building healthy eating habits. Positive reinforcement, such as praising their willingness to try new foods or make healthier choices, can reinforce positive behaviors and attitudes towards nutrition.
Seek Professional Guidance When Needed
If you have concerns about your child’s nutrition, Taylor suggests asking for a referral you’re your child’s pediatrician or contacting a registered dietitian (RD) with experience with selective eating and disorders that may influence these kinds of eating habits. RDs often work with children through early intervention programs, WIC, outpatient clinics at children’s hospitals, and health departments.
Be Patient and Consistent
Establishing healthy eating habits is a gradual process that requires patience and consistency. It's normal for children to have preferences and dislikes, but consistent exposure to nutritious foods and positive reinforcement can contribute to the development of lifelong healthy eating habits.
By incorporating these strategies into daily routines, parents can play a crucial role in fostering a healthy relationship between their children and the food they eat.