We all want our children to grow up happy and healthy, and healthy eating habits are important to their long-term health. As parents, we help lay the groundwork for healthy eating for our children early on, and continue building upon these habits as they grow. The early years are an important window during which we teach our children the eating habits that will guide them towards life-long healthy food choices. With that in mind, here are some helpful tips to teach children healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime:
- Provide many different food choices – From your child’s first taste samplings, expose your child to a variety of healthy foods. The first year of solid food is a time of experimentation for children. Put aside your fear of the mess (and we understand that it can be difficult to do that) and allow them to “play” with their food. This is an important phase during which your child will experiment and learn about texture, taste, smell and even gravity! We know that children learn about their world through play, and this holds true for food, too. Moms, when you’re pregnant and breastfeeding, eat a variety of foods so that the child gets a ‘taste’ of many flavors through you. While very young children do need to be offered soft foods, that doesn’t mean that everything has to be blended down into a paste-like mash. Starting sometime around or following your child’s sixth month (and when your baby’s showing an active interest in the food you’re eating), offer your child food with different textures – chunky foods, crunchy foods, and chewy foods (when safe to do so – follow your child’s lead and be sure not to leave them unattended when they eat). Provide different healthy food choices for your child and let them take the lead in what and how much they choose to eat (and keeps the mush off their plates). Take a look into baby-led weaning, which basically just means that you let your baby take the lead in his food choices from the start. Many people believe that baby-led weaning allows a child to develop a healthy relationship with food as well as a sense of body awareness. It can be helpful to remember that it might take your placing a particular food in front of your child multiple times before they develop a taste for it. Keep the pressure off and remember that, like nearly everything else, at least some of that food will end up in your child’s mouth.
- Offer familiar foods in new ways –Prepare the same foods in different ways. There are a ton of ways to cook an egg, for example. Teach your children that the food the like can be served in different ways and taste good. It’s a fun experiment to involve your children in, too. If, for instance, you always make scrambled eggs, try poached or over-easy. By mixing it up you’re helping your kids develop a wider range of tastes and more adaptability to new foods and situations. This will help immensely when you go to a restaurant, head off on a traveling adventure, or visit someone who prepares their food differently than you do at home. When you’re at home, allow your child to help you in the preparation of meals in an age-appropriate way. Take them grocery shopping or to the local Farmer’s Market with you and let them help you pick out the produce and talk with them about all the delicious dishes you’ll be able to make from your selections. Let them help you select the seeds to plant and grow a garden together. By involving your child in the food selection and preparation processes your child will feel a greater sense of inclusion in the meal-making in your home, which might help your child open her palette more willingly to new flavors.
- Lead by example – It’s tempting to avoid foods you don’t like. Maybe you don’t like peas or liver. Make an effort to show your children that you’re willing to try them again. Just because you don’t like a food doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t like it. Instead, model your willingness to try new foods, or try foods you think you don’t like again. Start a conversation with them about foods you thought you didn’t like as a child but have grown to like as an adult. Our tastes change as we get older and as our exposure to different foods increases, our likes and dislikes will change too. This holds true for children and adults alike. The better you eat, the better your kids will eat. Skip the coercion and food “battles.” Enjoy your family meal times together and just let your child see you enjoy the meals you’re eating and she will, eventually, follow your lead. And remember that they don’t have to like everything. It’s ok if we don’t like all foods, and the same holds true for your child.
- Make good food easy – One of the reasons that fast-food has become such a part of many people’s lives is that it’s easy. Our daily lives have gotten so busy that many people feel the need to choose foods that are fast and convenient, often at the cost of a healthier alternative. With only a little bit of preparation, though, we can make it much easier for everyone in our family to have healthy snacks and meals that can be grabbed at a moment’s notice. Many fruits and nuts are nature’s original fast-foods. Prepacked in their own skins, bananas, apples, oranges and nuts come all ready for your grab and go life. Cut up veggies and put them in small bags for the kids to grab when they’re on the go. Create healthy snack boxes for on the road and keep a cooler in your car. Make your own healthy trail mix or crunchy snack mixes. Even when we haven’t had the time to prepare these snacks ahead of time, we can opt to stop at a grocery store for the deli, salad bar and or prepared foods sections – where you can grab items such as different varieties of hummus or pre-cut fruits and veggies – nearly as easily as opting for the drive-through at a fast-food restaurant. There are many ways to make healthy eating easy for your whole family, which will continue to help your children make smart snacking choices as they grow.
- Make good food fun – Bento, which are, traditionally, Japanese meals served in a box, have gained popularity in Western countries for good reason – they’re convenient and allow for endless healthy food choices to be packed inside. There are different types of Bento. We’ll talk about kyaraben or charaben (“art bento” or “cute bento”). Some parents take the time to create elaborate and adorable lunch meals for their children that feature cute animal faces and shapes. This can encourage kids to eat what they bring from home instead of the junk from the vending machine, but don’t feel the pressure to do this if it’s not your style. It can be enough just to provide good food and help keep it looking tasty by sprinkling a little lemon juice over sliced fruits, such as apples and bananas, to help keep them looking fresh. Little tricks like this can help make good food more visually appealing for kids. Another option is to serve your kids in a fun way at home sometimes. Make a banana and kiwi palm tree or an orange snail. Pancakes with raisin or blueberry faces and berry rainbows are another couple of fun ideas to encourage healthy eating. It’s fun to do this, but we’d caution about doing this all the time lest you find your child always expecting an entertaining animal or food picture on their plate. Save it for special days.
Healthy eating habits start from childhood. By helping your children learn healthy eating habits at the beginning, you’ll help them by giving them a greater chance of continuing those habits as they grow and begin to make more and more decisions independently. Wouldn’t it be great to see all children start with the best chances of developing healthy lifestyle choices that will last a lifetime? We think so!
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– Healthy Living: Gardening. I’ve got a ton of green tomatoes, now what?
Amanda Carlson, a blogger as well as a former newborn care nurse, contributed to this post. To stay connected to her previous career and share the knowledge she gained, she began writing for www.newborncare.com.