Good nutrition is crucial to fuel kids as they grow. But starting them off on the right foot food-wise also sets the foundation for a healthy lifestyle that will carry into adulthood.
Kids learn these healthy habits through direct experiences with food and by watching others.
“It’s never too soon to start teaching kids good eating habits,” says pediatric dietitian Diana Schnee, MS, RD, CSP, LD.
Here are five ways you can do just that.
- Invite everyone to sit together at the table during mealtime.
Eating together as a family is how kids learn to make healthy food choices and to master table manners. If you insist that young kids sit with you — even if they aren’t ready for solids or are refusing to eat — they’ll start to learn the rules of dining.
Make the most of it by:
- Setting an example. Model good eating habits and let your kids see you trying different foods. For example, eat your veggies if you want your child to try them. Also, model good social behavior by allowing your kids to see how you answer questions and don’t interrupt — and definitely avoid screen time during meals.
- Limiting meals to a reasonable length of time. A meal shouldn’t take longer than 30 minutes. If necessary, you can even set a timer to reinforce the time expectation. This will help kids stay focused during meals.
- Eat at regularly scheduled meal and snack times. This will help your child eat balanced meals instead of grazing on snack foods during the day.
- Let kids choose from what’s on their plate.
Schnee says it’s good to let kids (even picky toddlers) choose from what’s on their plate, and it’s OK if they choose just one or two things.
“You are not a short-order cook. Make a decision about what you will serve, and stick to it,” she says. “If your child does not want to eat all or part of the meal, try to avoid making them something different.”
- Accept that kids will devour some meals and leave others untouched. With some exceptions, children generally eat to their hunger cues. Continue to offer a variety of foods during meals to encourage exploration and allow for exposure.
- Don’t expect your kids to eat as much as you do. Their portion sizes are in proportion to their age and body size. An adult serving of meat is about the size of the palm of the adult’s hand, while a child-sized serving of meat is about the size of the child’s palm.
- Keep trying if you don’t succeed.
Kids may need exposure to a food 10 to 20 times before they decide to eat it. It can take another 10 to 20 tries before they determine if they like it. So if your child rejects something, try again in a few weeks, Schnee advises.
- Occasionally let kids choose which vegetables to serve for dinner: “The sense of pride they get from helping prepare the vegetable may increase their willingness to eat it,” she says.
- Try pairing new foods with foods children already like: Offering a variety of colors and textures is important, especially with fruits and vegetables. A child who never sees a green vegetable will become an adult who never eats a green vegetable. Even just having the new food on your child’s plate will help them become more comfortable with it. Encourage a no-thank-you bite for new foods that are offered.
- Stay positive and keep talk about food simplistic. It can be easy to get frustrated if your child won’t try what’s offered to them. Work on talking about foods without your own bias, using basic descriptors instead. Offer new foods one at a time as to not overwhelm your child.
- Don’t make kids finish dinner to get dessert.
Many parents insist that kids clean their plates in order to get dessert. Instead, we should encourage them to learn to recognize their own internal hunger and fullness cues.
“There is no magical quantity for how much they need to eat to earn dessert, but they should have made a reasonable attempt to try the meal,” Schnee says.
- Don’t forbid treats.
Perhaps your child is overweight. You could feel tempted to make some foods completely off-limits, but “forbidden” foods are a draw for kids, and they tend to overeat these foods whenever they get the chance.
Instead, take a balanced approach by encouraging healthier treats and smaller portions of those treats. Again, this is where modeling is important. For example, it’s OK to have ice cream, but everyone should have the kiddie portion and consider going for frozen yogurt with dark chocolate instead of sprinkles and whipped cream.
“Find a way to incorporate these foods on rare occasions, and they will have a healthier approach to them,” Schnee advises.