Children eat 1,640 dinner meals before the age of five. During that time, their eating habits are like cobwebs, easy to change. After five, their eating habits are more like cables, with powerful holds on their life and health.
Use that birth to 5 timeframe to your advantage by considering the tips listed below. If your kids are over five years old, children develop a natural preference for the foods they enjoy the most, so the challenge is to make healthy choices appealing. Of course, no matter how good your intentions, it’s always going to be difficult to convince your eight-year-old that an apple is as sweet as a cookie. However, you can ensure your children’s diet is as nutritious and wholesome as possible, even while allowing for some of their favorite treats.
Have Regular Family Meals
It’s more than just eating together. You eat. You talk. You listen. You laugh. You learn. Family meals connect families in powerful ways.
Knowing dinner is served at approximately the same time every night and the entire family will be sitting down together is comforting and enhances appetite. Breakfast is another great time for a family meal, especially since kids who eat breakfast tend to do better in school.
An increase in the frequency of family meals is also associated with higher nutrient intakes (including calcium, iron, vitamins, and fiber) and lower intakes of saturated and trans fats. This blog talks about how dinner rituals correlate with a child’s weight.
Cook More Meals at Home
Eating home-cooked meals is healthier for the whole family and sets a great example for kids about the importance of food. Restaurant meals tend to have more fat, sugar, and salt. Save dining out for special occasions.
Get Kids Involved
Children enjoy helping adults shop for groceries, selecting what goes in their lunch box, and preparing dinner. They also like washing vegetables. They’ll enjoy eating them more if they help prepare them. It's also a chance for you to teach them about the nutritional value in different foods, and (for older children) how to read food labels. My 3½ year-old frequently asks how certain foods help his body. I find myself telling him things such as, “chicken gives you big muscles,” “carrots help you see better” and “fish makes your heart healthy.”
Walk the Talk
A child's impulse to imitate is strong, so it’s important you act as a role model for your kids. Sooner or later, kids will do as you do. It’s no good asking your child to eat fruit and vegetables while you gorge on potato chips and soda. Let them see you eating a variety of different fruits and vegetables. If you don’t like a particular fruit or vegetable, by all means, NEVER, and I mean NEVER, tell your child that. Fake it!! If your child knows you don’t like it, they won’t want to eat it either!
Make a Variety of Healthy Snacks Available (instead of empty calorie snacks)
Children learn to enjoy healthy snacks if offered to them consistently. Keep plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grain snacks, and healthy beverages (water, milk) around and easily accessible so kids become used to reaching for healthy snacks instead of empty calorie snacks like soda, chips, or cookies.
Some of my favorite go-to snacks for my kids are first and foremost fruits and vegetables!
I also focus on healthy fats and protein, such as: dried coconut, coconut chips, nutrition bars with healthy fats + protein, ALL nuts and nut butter (almonds, pistachio nuts, trail mix, etc.), string cheese, baby carrots, and veggie and kale chips.
Your Kiddo determines Portion Sizes
Don’t insist your child clean the plate, and never use food as a reward or bribe. Mom and dad decide what to feed the kids, and it's your child's responsibility to decide how much to eat. Trust that your child feels in his/her body whether he's hungry or full. If they want seconds, let them have seconds.
Offer Vegetables Daily
Children prefer foods high in calories and appear to accept sweet tastes more than bitter tastes from birth. Since vegetables are lower in calories and bitter tasting, this might hinder vegetable intake among children. At the same time, repeated exposure of a new vegetable in early life is known to enhance intake of it. Check out these 9 tips for getting kids to eat more vegetables.
Keep in mind, children need to be offered a new food as many as 10-15 times before they will eat it! Please don't give up or say "he doesn't like that." He/she may surprise you!
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RD
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods