Whether you have a 5-year-old or a 15-year-old, encouraging healthy eating habits is an important goal for many parents and sitters. But if you’re struggling with a picky eater who turns up his nose at the sight of a carrot, you’re not alone. Research shows that the most commonly consumed vegetable among toddlers are French fries; a quarter doesn’t eat a serving of fruit each day, and 30% don’t eat a single vegetable. And the holidays present an even bigger challenge, with Thanksgiving ushering in the season of sweets and treats.
We know the risks. According to the CDC, obesity affects about 12.7 million children and adolescents. Setting your child up for nutritional success means instilling a healthy attitude about food and a lifetime of good habits. Many times, we approach this touchy topic all wrong by preaching to kids about good vs. bad food or banning certain food groups. Instead, work toward consistently practicing healthy habits and your kids will too. Here’s how to start.
Lead by example.
Parents and sitters who want their kids to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet but make a beeline for the drive-through several times a week are going to find that “do as I say, not as I do” is rarely successful. If you want your kids to eat better, it’s important to model healthy habits. That doesn’t mean talking about weight and dieting to kids — that can end up backfiring. Instead, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, families should encourage a healthy lifestyle and support healthy eating at home.
Focus on variety.
Between work, school schedules, and social activities, falling into a meal rut happens. But serving your child spaghetti every night — even though you know they’ll eat it — won’t meet their nutritional needs or help them learn to enjoy new foods. More importantly, a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is important for a growing child — only eating one or two food groups isn’t going to cut it.
How do you break out of a meal rut? If you have a nanny, ask if she is willing to prepare one or two new dinners a week for your family. No nanny? Make meal planning a priority and prep veggies and other food in advance, so that you have quick, healthy options on busy weeknights.
Make family meals a priority.
Family dinner is often stressed as an important part of a child’s upbringing — and with good reason. It’s not only key for a child’s health, but also for their well-being. According to the Family Dinner Project, research has shown that regular family dinners can mean lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, depression, obesity and eating disorders, better grades and higher self-esteem. While it may not be possible to sit down to a hot, home-cooked meal every single night, prioritize having dinner together two or three times a week. Or if dinner isn’t possible, make breakfast your family meal. What’s important is that you have time to model healthy habits, try new foods, and talk to your kids about their day.
Skip the food fights.
“You can have dessert if you eat five more bites.” Sound familiar? Especially with young children who are picky eaters, negotiating can seem like your best option to get them to eat a vegetable or try a new food. Another pitfall? Giving in once a kid refuses to eat the dinner you made, and serving your child what they want instead.
It’s easy to resort to these tactics, but unfortunately, they reinforce poor eating habits. Skip the negotiating and arguments (we know, easier said than done) by serving kids appropriately sized portions (smaller than you think), rotating in new foods to try alongside foods you know they like, and paying attention to which foods are a hit and why. Finally, get kids interested in healthy eating by involving them in the process of preparing nutritious meals. Kids typically love to play kitchen helper, and if they chopped, mixed or peeled part of dinner, they’ll feel ownership over the process and be more likely to want to taste the fruits of their labor.