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In a perfect world, your child would listen to your advice and happily choose healthy foods. They would eat what you pack in their lunches and say “no, thank you” to candy and junk food from others. But life is, well life. I’ve learned that I can’t keep my daughter in a bubble (although sometimes I would like to). But, what I can do as her mom
Why is Nutrition so Important for Children? (aka What’s the big deal?)
We all know that junk food is not good for us or our children. Yet, it’s more of a problem than you may think. Research shows that regular junk food intake leads to long-term health problems such as obesity, hypertension, heart disease
In addition, when we give our children junk food they can become deficient in vitamins such as A and C, and minerals such as magnesium and calcium. This encourages the development of deficiency diseases and osteoporosis, as well as dental problems due to higher sugar intake. Eating foods that lack proper nutrition can also lead to addiction to unhealthy foods, poor academics, poor cognitive development, mood swings, lack of attention, depression, sleep disturbances, and hyperactivity. Some evidence points to junk foods as being as addictive as alcohol and drugs.
For these reasons, we need to give our kids the gift of nutritious foods and healthy habits. If you want to give your child the best chance of having a happy, fulfilled life then start with food.
So, What Can You Do to Help Your Child Develop Healthy Eating Habits?
1. The Power of Mom
In this study, when mothers practiced five healthy behaviors the risk of obesity in their children was reduced by 75%. The five healthy habits were:
- eating a healthy, balanced diet
- exercise regularly
- maintain a healthy body weight
- avoid smoking
- low to moderate alcohol consumption
Surprisingly the risk of obesity was lower in children whose mother reported low to moderate alcohol consumption as opposed to those mothers who did not drink at all..so go ahead and have that drink of wine. This study makes sense and also will empower you to stick with your healthy habits too.
2. Make sure that Healthy Snacks are Readily Available
I’m sure you can picture your child rummaging through the refrigerator or pantry looking for something to eat. My daughter sometimes has the freezer, refrigerator, and pantry doors open at the same time (I guess she wants to know what her options are). I let her pick out her own snacks, so that she has the freedom to choose what she wants to eat and how much she wants to eat.
The key is to stock up on easy-to-grab healthy options and place them where your child can see them easily.
If you think about the grocery store, you will notice that most kid’s products (cereal, fruit snacks, etc) are placed on the middle to lower shelves at eye level to catch their attention. So, you can use this grocery store tactic to your advantage at home too.
On a side note, researchers at Cornell’s Food and Brand lab found that the majority of mascots on kid’s cereal boxes look slightly downward, making it more likely that these characters will be making direct eye contact with your toddler standing in the aisle. Research shows that brand trust and connectivity to a product increases when eye contact is made, even when it’s just a cartoon rabbit or the Captain that’s gazing directly at a small child’s face. Creepy! Now the next time you walk down the cereal aisle you will feel their creepy eyes following you.
Back to the tips. For refrigerated items, it is helpful to place baskets or containers of ready to eat foods on easy to reach shelves. Visit Thriving Home for ideas of how to organize your refrigerator with healthy foods. I have refrigerator envy (if that’s a thing)!
Some examples of easy healthy snacks include:
- small apples washed and ready to eat
- grapes in single-serving bags
- cut up carrots or celery sticks with single serving packets of almond butter
- whole milk yogurt or coconut milk yogurt (low sugar)
- sugar snap peas & sliced red bell pepper with Wholly Guacamole minis
- cucumber slices with hummus
- hard boiled eggs
Ideas for pantry foods include:
- mixed nuts in individual containers
- individual containers of trail mix
- RX Bars (RXBAR makes whole food protein bars with simple, all-natural ingredients.)
- Jerky bars with no added preservatives DNX Foods (DNX Bars are my favorite)
- Dried fruit or apple chips
- Plantain chips
Once you’ve decided what foods to offer, let your kids decide what and how much to eat. I would also recommend not banning treats from the house, but it’s helpful to put them on a higher shelf or in a different cupboard (out of sight out of mind). Restricting food usually backfires, steering children to sneak food and overeat.
3. Make food fun!
We are competing with advertisements (with eyeballs) and colorfully packaged “kids” foods so we need to up our game and make our food fun too!
- When preparing my daughter’s meals I like to use fun food picks and skewers. I purchased this package of fruit/vegetable cutters and animal food picks recently and my daughter loves them! I am waiting for a delivery of fun, colorful food picks too. The fruit/vegetable cutters are great because they have a rubber covers so that my daughter can use them. She loves cutting out shapes in bananas, apples, cheese, ham and turkey slices, etc.
- Let your child be creative and play with their food. Call it edible art and let your kid have fun shaping, arranging, cutting and sculpting healthy foods into their own personal creations. Because of their vibrant colors, fruits and vegetables make beautiful food art. Noshi Food Paint is also a great way to let your kids be creative with
- There are thousands of posts on Pinterest about creating animals and other fun things out of food. Maybe one day I’ll have time and patience for this because they are super cute! Sarah from Bombshell Bling has a great round up of fun food creations.
- Kids also think it’s hilarious if you make up funny names for their food. For example, a green smoothie can be “Dragon juice” or a strawberry smoothie can be called “Pinkie Pie Party Drink”. Have fun with it! Researchers from Cornell University found that when they labeled carrots “X-ray vision carrots” as opposed to “food of the day” 34% more carrots were chosen by students as part of their school lunch. More importantly, the kids ate the carrots! Other names used were “Power Punch Broccoli” and “Silly Dilly Green Beans”. They have also reported that associating healthy foods with superheroes like Batman and Superman would get more children interested in eating these foods (What would Batman eat?). This is fun, easy way to to have fun while raising healthy kids.
- Make family meals as happy and relaxed as you can (I know this can be a hard one!) Research shows that families who frequently eat dinner together have children with a better sense of values, show improved school performance, and engage in less risky behaviors. I’m working on not stressing when my child is getting food all over the floor or on her clothes. As long as she is sitting with us at the table I am happy. Baby steps, right? Sometimes she will bring a puzzle to the table that we can work on together. And sometimes I let her set the table with party plates and cups so that she will be interested in setting the table and staying seated for dinner. What kid doesn’t love a party?!
- If all else fails, slap some eyes on your food!
4. Involve Your Child in Grocery Shopping
Ok, I can feel your eyes rolling at this one, but taking your kids grocery shopping has many benefits when raising a healthy kid. It gives them an opportunity to learn about a wide variety of foods and it’s a great opportunity to talk about healthy foods, where food comes from, and may even help motivate your child to try something new.
These are a few tips for making the most out of your grocery store trip:
- Involve Your Kids. Kids LOVE to be a part of whatever is happening. The more you give kids to do and think about, the easier and more fun grocery shopping is for everyone. Your child can be in charge of getting bags for you in the produce section, placing items in their own child-sized cart (after asking you of course), and they can count out items for you. My daughter is a beginner reader so I ask her to spot items that begin with a specific letter or sound. If I’m buying something packaged I’ll spell the word for her and have her “hunt” for the item in the aisle.
- Play “I spy”. For example, “I spy something blue (or round, or square),” and see if they can figure out what you’re looking at.
- Let your child pick out foods from the produce section of the store. They may find something even you haven’t tried before!
- You can also make a game out of it by giving them a certain color or shape of food to look for (ex. Look for something round and red..go!)
- Another fun grocery store idea is to give your child a printed list of items to help you find in the store. Molly Rhoten, the founder of The Trip Clip, has created this awesome tool to make custom grocery lists with text and pictures. This is a great way to encourage your child to be active in grocery shopping and also helps with reading skills. There is a wide variety of items to choose from and you can either print the list or use it on a mobile device. Genius!
- Taking your kids to the grocery store is also a great way to teach them the importance of reading the labels on packaged foods. It’s never too early to start teaching your kids the importance of knowing what is in their food and things to look for on labels (added sugar, preservatives, etc). My daughter is five years old, so at this
pointI am keeping it simple and teaching her to look at Added Sugars, Nutrients, and Ingredients. Our goal is to look for zero added sugar (or very low added sugar) and foods with nutrients. I read the ingredient section to her and we see if there are any “strange” words like hydrogenated, high fructose corn syrup, red #40, sodium nitrate, BHA, etc. Basically, if it’s not a real food then don’t put it in the cart. The label on the right shows that when she is older I will also teach her to look for zero trans fat and high percentages of fiber and protein.
5. Grow Your Own Food
Another great way to help your kids develop healthy eating habits is to teach them where food comes from by gardening. Studies have found that children involved in gardening eat more fruits and vegetables, learn that they can be responsible for their own health, and feel more capable and confident. Gardening also positively impacts mood & psychological well-being. In summary, gardening is awesome.
Studies have found that children involved in gardening eat more fruits and vegetables, learn that they can be responsible for their own health, and feel more capable and confident.
- How to get started. We have a small garden in our backyard for growing summer vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce. There are so many ways to get your child involved! My daughter loves picking out the seeds at the store, planting the seedlings, and digging the holes in the garden outside for planting. Kids love to play in the dirt and dig. She also likes to water the garden and pick the vegetables when they are ready. I feel like it really does influence her to eat more vegetables. Usually, she has a mouthful of cherry tomatoes by the time we walk back to the house!
- It’s also super easy to plant indoors. Growing vegetables and herbs can be done on a windowsill or on a table inside. You can use pots, jars, or any container you have on hand. Check out the article from Cityhomesteads.com for easy to grow vegetable ideas: A Comprehensive Guide To Indoor Vegetable Gardening.
- Tower gardens are a great way to grow a lot of plants in a small space.
- There are also lots of great kits made for kids in mind. Take a look at the Root-Vue Farm, which has a window for your child to observe plants and roots develop as they grow. The AeroGarden Herbie Kid’s Garden with Pizza Party Activity Kit comes with fun and educational activities and you get to have a pizza party using the herbs that you have grown. Who doesn’t love pizza?!
6. Get Your Child Involved in Preparing Food
Real food doesn’t have ingredients, real food is ingredients.Jamie Oliver
Researchers from the Basque Culinary Center found that when students participated in the preparation of three unfamiliar foods they were more likely to choose to eat the unfamiliar foods, were more likely to taste the unfamiliar foods, and were more likely to report that they liked the whole snack that they helped prepare as compared to the group of students that did not help prepare the food. The three foods chosen were apple/beetroot juice, zucchini tortilla sandwich, and spinach cookies. I’m sure impressed…spinach cookies!
There are so many ways kids can help. Here are some examples (listed in order of tasks for younger to older children):
- Rinse fruits and vegetables and pat them dry
- Pull basil and cilantro leaves off their stems
- Tear lettuce into bite-sized pieces
- Wash and spin lettuce and greens in the salad spinner (my daughter’s favorite!)
- Sprinkle toppings on salads
- Stir or whisk ingredients together
- Roll out dough
- Crack eggs
- Flipping foods with a spatula
- Measure out ingredients
- Cut up soft foods
- Chop vegetables
- Peel vegetables with a vegetable peeler
- Open cans with a can opener
Along with helping in the kitchen, your kids will also be developing fine motor skills, communication skills (ex. follow directions, learning kitchen concepts/vocabulary), building on math skills, and having fun with you!
7. Teach Your Healthy Kids to think about Food as Fuel
When you talk to your kids about nutrition, try to leave calories and weight out of the conversation. Focus on all the ways food can help their brain and body work better.
Kids are much more interested in the present benefits of feeling good and having the energy to play with their friends. They are not concerned with preventing something that could happen down the line like developing diabetes or heart disease.
Metaphors and simple concepts are useful in teaching basic nutrition. An example of this could be talking to your kids about foods rich in carbohydrates as “energy” or “fuel” foods, protein-rich foods as “grow” “or “muscle building” foods, fruits
For younger children, you could
- The picky eater. There are many types of “picky eating”. Some kids don’t like to try unfamiliar foods, other’s don’t like the texture of certain foods, and some kids will only eat foods of a certain color (white seems to be the most common). Don’t be discouraged, you are not alone. Research has shown that in most cases, parents can help their children learn to like new foods through multiple exposures (between 5 to 10). Just offer the food. Even if your child just touches and plays with the food, that is a great first step. If you need help with this please feel free to contact me!
- Eating out with kids. The reality is that most restaurants have a horrible kid’s menu. I’m guessing that most restaurants you have been to have the same choices: hamburger, cheeseburger, mac-and-cheese, chicken nuggets, or pizza. Am I right? And of
course, they all come with fries (insert eye roll here). The good thing is that most restaurants will make smaller portions of the “adult” menu items, you can su b stitutethe fries with a healthier side, or since restaurant portions are usually huge any wayyou could order together and share a meal.
- Avoid the “clean plate club”. Healthy kids know when they are hungry and when they have had enough. Infants do this naturally when breastfeeding and starting solids. We have to do our best to maintain that natural habit throughout toddlerhood to the teen years. This skill of responding to natural hunger and normal cues of satiety can be a huge asset for children for their entire lives. Also, don’t reward children for finishing their dinner with more food (ie, dessert), as children will often eat past their fullness. For more tips about intuitive eating check out, How to Support Your Child’s Eating Intuition.
Did you find this information helpful? Please take a second to share this with your friends and family! I appreciate your support so much!
Kathryn Schwab, M.S., Ed.S., is a certified school psychologist who has worked with children and their families for over 10 years. She received a Master of Science and Educational Specialist Degree from the University of Dayton.