(Editor’s note: please welcome Elaine’s advice on getting kids to eat healthier. Thanks Elaine!)
With obesity on the rise, it’s more important than ever to teach your children the steps needed for living a healthy lifestyle. Many parents try to do this by forcing children to try new foods. This is a common mistake that can lead to rebelliousness and even more unhealthy eating habits.
In order to prevent this from happening, parents must teach their children to want to eat good foods, even when parents aren’t around to encourage them. It won’t take an online PhD to establish these good eating habits. When children believe they have control over what they eat, they will be much more likely to make healthy choices and continue doing so later in life.
Ideally, children should be raised eating fruits and vegetables from as soon as they begin to be weaned. This isn’t always realistic, though. In many families, both parents work and simply don’t have time to cook every night. When this happens, children are often raised on fast foods or instant meals, such as frozen pizza or TV dinners. The great convenience of these sorts of foods makes this habit hard to break once started. Children themselves may also object to changes in what they’re used to eating.
Before making any sudden changes to your children’s diet, explain to them why eating healthy is important. Be sure to focus on the health aspect, not superficial values of being thin or fat. Encourage your children to come up with healthy foods they’d like to try. If they can’t think of any off the top of their heads, let them accompany you to the grocery store. Allow each child to pick out a few groceries they’re interested in trying. This makes learning to eat healthy foods fun and children will begin looking forward to going grocery shopping with you.
Once you’ve purchased healthy foods, ask your children to take on the role of researchers. Compare the food labels of healthy food to those of unhealthy ones. Compare amount of sugar, salt, or other ingredients, then discuss why these are good or bad and how each ingredient affects the body.
Continue the research by asking children to taste the food. Start out with a very small bite, no bigger than pea size. Tell them that they don’t have to swallow it if they don’t want, just taste it for a few seconds.
Ask them about the food. Avoid questions that may get negative responses, such as “did you like it?” Instead ask them to rate the food on a scale of one to ten. Challenge them to name three words to describe the food. Practice this activity often. It allows your children the fun of taking an active part in preparing their food while exposing them to healthier foods. Studies have shown the more children are exposed to healthy foods, the more likely they are to eat them.
This means parents should also include a small serving of vegetables and fruit with every meal. It’s important to note the serving size should be reasonable. For example, if your child hates peas, don’t serve a whole plateful. Instead, add only a few bites. This looks more reasonable and your child will be more likely to eat it. Even though children may not love eating peas, they’ll remember previous discussions about why eating vegetables is important. Large amounts of vegetables will be overwhelming, but children will be more likely to try small servings.
With frequent exposure to these foods as well as ongoing discussions about why it’s important to eat healthy, children will eventually learn to make these decisions themselves.
The last step in teaching children to want to eat healthy is to rotate foods constantly. Avoid giving your child the same food two days in a row, or even similar foods. If children are grow accustomed to eating the same foods all the time, they’ll be reluctant to try new ones. Allow them to continue in the role of a ‘food researcher’ by exposing them to a wide variety of meals as often as possible. This will encourage them to try new healthier foods on their own, a skill (and benefit to their health) that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Earnest Parenting: helping parents get their children to eat healthy foods.
Photo courtesy of Martin Cathrae via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.