How to Support Healthy Eating Habits in Kids

When it comes to eating and food preferences, school-age children can fall anywhere in a wide-ranging spectrum. Some kids may consistently be up for trying any new food that comes their way, while others may be more hesitant and still others fall somewhere in the middle.

No matter what your child's preferences and habits are, it's always a good time to nurture positivity around food and eating experiences. Kids also need support in listening to their bodies in terms of what makes them feel good.

1

Go Food Shopping With Kids

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Getting kids into the store can get them more excited about meals and snacks to come because they will have had some input. Involve kids in meal planning and prep whenever you can.

You can make a game out of picking different colors of fruits and vegetables (green broccoli, yellow and red peppers, orange carrots). Then, talk about the dishes you can make in the coming week using your rainbow of produce, such as a stir-fry. Asking kids to choose recipes or dishes they'd like to help shop for and prep can be a great way to get kids more excited about cooking (and eating).

2

Let Your Kids Help You Cook

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Kids of every age can help out in the kitchen. Your kindergartner may not be able to chop vegetables, but they can certainly tear up lettuce for a salad or put bread in a basket. A 9- or 10-year-old can stir sauces or measure out ingredients.

You’ll be glad you encouraged culinary habits early when your grade-schooler grows into a teen who can skillfully whip up a delicious dinner for the whole family. These are skills that are valuable for every stage of life.

3

Don't Focus On the Amount of Food They Eat

healthy eating habits - boy eating peas on table
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Your kid may polish off everything on their plate one day, then eat two peas and declare that they're done the next. This is perfectly normal behavior for any of us, from a growing grade-schooler to an adult. Our appetites change from day to day and this is especially true when kids go through periods of more intense or slower growth.

Never comment on the amount of food your child eats, whether it's more or less than you were expecting. Your job as a parent is to provide food. Your child's job is to choose what and how much food they eat. If you're noticing more food waste, encourage kids to start with smaller portions and go back for seconds (or thirds, etc.) to reduce waste.

4

Have a Snack Plan

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Snacks can be great ways to fit in foods that kids may not get at meals. Snacks are also very handy when schedules are busy and/or a meal may be a while away. Just like with meals, kids often respond to snacks more positively when they have a say in them. Offering kids two options for snacks or letting them plan their snacks for the week can help.

Timing is also something to think about, and ideal timing for snacks varies from child to child and family to family. Ideally, kids will eat snacks with enough time left before a meal to get to the meal feeling hungry but not overly so.

5

Avoid the Allure of Bribes

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It can certainly be tempting to say no TV, dessert, or whatever else your child wants unless they eat dinner, but this practice can cause problems with a kid's relationship to food. We want to encourage kids to listen to their bodies. Bribing them to eat sends the message that it doesn't matter how they feel: They should listen to what you say instead of what their body is telling them.

If your child doesn't want to eat because they don't like what's being served, let them know that this is what's for dinner and a snack will be available in an hour or so. It's helpful to include at least one food you know your child likes with each meal, so they have something they feel safe with. This can also make them more willing to branch out and try other foods.

6

Don't Demonize Certain Foods

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Not allowing so much as a lollipop in your home can make a child more likely to scarf down "forbidden" food when they get the opportunity elsewhere (such as school or a friend's house). It also sends the message that these forbidden foods are different or special in some way.

Avoid talking about foods as being good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, clean or junky, etc. This is great practice for kids and adults alike.

A better way to handle higher-sugar foods is to include them with a meal. At dinner time, you might put spaghetti, salad, and dessert on your child's plate at the same time. This sends the message that each of these foods is important and that there's no scarcity around the sweet foods.

Allow kids to eat the foods on their plate in any order they wish. Kids who have been restricted when it comes to sweets may have more intense responses to this system until they trust that the sweets will be there consistently.

7

Remember That Kids Are Watching and Listening

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Minimize talk about dieting, if you do diet. The same goes for commenting on your own (or anyone else's) body. Similarly, don't comment on the amount of food you or anyone else at the table eats.

When it comes to a variety of food, if you want your kids to be adventurous eaters, it helps to show them what this looks like. And if there's a food that's new to you, explore it with your kids. While including kids in the shopping and preparation of a meal does take longer, doing so whenever you can can enhances the meal experience for everyone involved.

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