Starting Young with Healthy Food Choices
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Making good choices about food is important every day, not just on game day. Mom, dietitian, and nutrition expert Abby Langer has great advice about how to help kids develop healthy eating habits and attitudes.
Parents want to make the best food choices for our kids—certainly during soccer season, but ideally all year 'round, whether they're playing team sports or not. We want them to eat tons of fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods, but they don’t always make it easy on us. The worst is when their lunch boxes come home full at the end of the day, or they eat everything but the veggies on their dinner plates. (Seriously, just because I’m a dietitian doesn’t mean my kids are any easier in terms of eating habits!)
It’s really important to start good food habits early—not just by focusing on the food kids eat—but by teaching them to have a good attitude toward food and eating, as well. I see countless clients who don’t have a good relationship with food because of how they were raised, and to undo this later on in life is difficult. Starting young is key!
Here are some of my favorite dos and don’ts in terms of how to present food and eating to kids…
Do: Model Good Eating Behavior
If we want our kids to eat healthy foods, it’s important for them to see us eating them, too. It’s not a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of thing; kids really do take their cues from us.
Make sure to include vegetables and fruit daily in your own diet, as well as your childrens’. Sit down to tech-free family meals whenever possible, and enjoy a wide variety of new healthy choices. When your kids see that you are open to trying things, they’ll want to explore their options, too.
Don’t: Force Or Play Games
One of my biggest pet peeves is when parents try to trick kids into eating vegetables. Hiding veggies doesn’t teach kids good habits, it breaks trust. It also doesn’t teach kids how to love vegetables!
I know it’s hard when your kids don’t love to eat vegetables and fruits, but be persistent. Give them the produce choices that they love, then build on those by preparing them in different ways. Offer new choices alongside ones that kids like, so they have a familiar food with a new one.
Do: Let Kids Choose When And How Much
Like feeding guru Ellyn Satter says, it’s up to kids to decide when to eat and how much to eat. Forcing kids to sit at the table until they clean their plates and trying to dictate how much food they eat doesn’t teach them to love food. Empower kids to listen to their own bodies, and make those decisions based on how hungry or full they feel.
Don’t: Say How Much You Hate Certain Things
Proclaiming that you hate a certain food may influence your kids’ feelings about it, too. Try not to let your own food biases sway your kids—let them decide for themselves.
Do: Bring Kids To The Grocery Store And Into The Kitchen
One of the best things you can do to help your kids become healthy eaters is to engage them in the selection and preparation of their food. Bring them grocery shopping and get them to choose one fruit and one vegetable they’d like to try. Then prepare those foods together! Nothing gets kids more invested in their food than when they choose and make it themselves.
Don’t: Vilify Certain Food Groups
We all know certain foods are healthier than others, but try to normalize all foods so your kids aren’t afraid of eating. Telling them that sugar is toxic, or that they should only eat organic foods, for example, creates a fear of food and can also cause the “forbidden fruit syndrome” where kids want what they can’t have.
Do: Let Things Slide
If you make a big deal about things, they’re going to be a big deal. Sounds easy in theory, but as a parent, it’s not so simple. Kids pick up on your cues, so when you hover around them and comment constantly on whether or not they’re eating (or whether or not they’re eating how you want them to eat), this can really perpetuate the situation.
Leave them alone and shift the conversation away from food to something completely unrelated. If kids eat everything but their vegetables, don’t say anything. If kids eat their vegetables, don’t say anything. Don’t create a loaded situation when you don’t need to. Chances are that when you back off, they’ll feel less pressure and will eat according to their own needs and cues.
Words and nutrition advice from dietitian Abby Langer.