If you are a mom who struggles with getting her kids to eat well, rest assured that you are not alone. Food is one of the first things that kids realize that they have control over and therefore use it to demonstrate autonomy, creating meal planning nightmares for parents. Fortunately, the healthy eating battle can be a little easier to fight than it appears to be. An August 2014 position paper published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics indicates that there are a few things that you can do to help your child develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.
1. Stock healthy foods
It may sound like a cliché but it is absolutely true, “If you buy healthy foods, they will eat healthy food!” Start by keeping high fat, high calorie, salty and/or sugary foods and beverage out of the house. If you have an occasion in which you absolutely must have them, buy them in quantities that can be consumed in one sitting. That way, there are no” junk food” options readily available in the house.
Stock your pantry and refrigerator with a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Tip: Make it really convenient to grab a healthy snack by always keeping washed and cut up fruit plain sight and ready to plop in the mouth.
2. Don’t force kids to eat
Kids have an incredible way of listening to their body’s internal cues for hunger. Consequently, they eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. When this happens, the average parent perceives the food eaten as being inadequate and therefore coerces, threatens and/or bribes the child into “cleaning his/her plate.”
Research shows that such actions from parents only lead to resistance which festers for a left to fester can lead to long term poor relationships with food. In fact, numerous studies demonstrate that children who were forced to eat certain foods and /or clean up their plates at mealtimes lost the ability to listen to their internal hunger cues resulting in increased caloric intakes and the consequent overweight/obese status.
Give your children permission to eat and listen to their bodies. Rest assured that no healthy child will intentionally starve him/herself. They will get adequate nutrition.
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3. Introduce new foods
Variety is a key element of a healthy diet and while it is very common for young children to want to eat the same thing every single meal, it is essential that parents introduce new foods on a regular basis. Worried that your child will refuse to even touch the new food, let alone taste it? Don’t worry! Once again you are not alone but you must be persistent. It takes an average of 8-10 exposures to a new food before most kids will consume it in considerable amounts..
4. Make it a family affair
Families that enjoy regular meals together tend to be healthier than those that do not. Clinicians recommend that families enjoy at least 3 meals a week together. Don’t just make it about eating the meal together, teach children vital information about food and health by including them in every step of the food procuring process.
Let them grow a small garden and pick the vegetables when they are ready. Take them with you when you go to the market, assign them age appropriate food preparation tasks in the kitchen and have them set the table. Make it a real family affair and be sure to include dad in the process. By so doing, you build the health of the family and teach vital meal preparation skills for lifelong healthy eating success.
5. Model good eating habits
Children imitate the habits of those around them. If you are not making healthy food choices, they will follow suit. A child is more likely to enjoy a new vegetable if they see mom and dad eating and enjoying it. So eat away and remember, someone is watching your every bite.
Healthy eating does not have to be complicated. Start by implementing these steps and watch your children grow into healthy eating advocates for the future.
Here’s to your health!
Cordialis Msora-Kasago is a Registered Dietitian (R.D) and a pioneer in the discussion of modern day healthy lifestyles in Africa. She is the founder of The African Pot Nutrition - an organization that improves the health of African people through sustainable diet and lifestyle programs. Follow her on twitter @africadietitian.
Alexandra Fiman Maul, MPH