Helping Children Learn to Eat Healthy

Last week we talked about some of the factors that come together and result in children becoming “picky eaters,” and we talked about ways to mitigate it. However, establishing long-term healthy eating patterns is a larger task than just avoiding forming bad ones.  This post will attempt to give parents guidance for the kind of things that help children develop life-long healthy eating habits.  Please note, that according to research, eating habits are established earlier than many people think. It was found that eating patterns are set by age two, especially as it relates to the consumption of fruits, vegetables and junk food[i].

What Works:

  • Allowing the child’s hunger level to dictate how much they eat rather than an external requirement, such as “finish everything on your plate.”
    • This is only affective if the child cannot get any more food until the next meal. It may be difficult for the parent to think of their child as hungry, but a child is unlikely to suffer any serious consequences from being hungry for a couple of hours.  If a parent cannot tolerate the child’s claim of hunger, the child can be offered the remainder of the food they had refused earlier.
  • Offering fruits or vegetables as the first option for snack, and no other snack can be discussed until a snack from those categories has been selected and eaten.
  • Parents actively promoting healthy food choices and limiting access to unhealthy treats to special occasions.
    • It also helps to offer healthy alternatives rather than simply refusing the child’s request. This is especially critical when children are young, and the parents have more control. Research has found that although taste dictates a child’s preference for a food, the child’s actual eating of the food is determined mostly by a parent’s permission[ii].
  • Having the parent encourage moderation and prevention of excessive eating[iii].
  • Having the child eat with friends and peers who have healthy eating habits and eat a variety of foods[iv].
    • This is especially important if the child is in an environment where they may be teased for eating healthy, once the child is of an age where their friend’s opinions matter,. For example, if the child is eating broccoli in the school cafeteria, and the children nearby call it disgusting, the child may be less willing to eat it in the future, even though they themselves see nothing wrong with the broccoli.  In such case, having friends who eat similar foods can help provide social acceptance.  The group of children who eat healthy food can also create the “healthy section” of the cafeteria.
    • It may also help to talk to the child about the fact that sometimes doing the right thing for themselves means doing the unpopular thing. This will be a good early lesson for dealing with peer pressure in general.
  • Adding fruits and vegetables to meals.
    • This normalizes the presence of these food groups as stand parts of meals, and frequent exposure to a food leads to it being more accepted.
    • Note: this applies to junk food in the same way as it applies to fruits and vegetables, so be mindful of the long- term effects of frequent exposure.
  • Establishing healthy food rules. Some examples:
    • Always eat breakfast;
    • Eat X pieces of fruit per day;
    • Eat X number of vegetables of a different colors per day.
  • Growing your own fruits and vegetables (if you can and are willing).
    • This has been found to lead to children eating more of these foods[v].
  • Avoiding take out whenever possible
  • Involving children in cooking meals for the family

What Does Not Work:

  • Establishing very strict rules for which foods the child may and may not have.
    • This has been found to lead to an increased desire for the food[vi].
  • Rewarding children with an unhealthy food (dessert) for eating a healthy food.
    • This arrangement makes the reward food seem even more desirable and increases the chances of wanting it[vii].
  • Watching parents diet negatively affects children’s food choices.
    • This is especially impactful if the parents’ diet is very restrictive, and as a result, the child’s access to food variety is limited[viii].
  • Giving children open access to snacks, such as candy
    • Predictably, this results in children eating less fruits and vegetables[ix].
  • Following some food norms which originated in a culture of food scarcity.
    • If a family’s food practices were established in another culture, and that culture had a scarcity of food, feeding the child as though they are still living under those conditions does not prepare them to deal with and make healthy choices in the face of the excess of easily available food in this culture.
  • Eating in front of the television.
    • This promotes mindless eating and makes it less likely that the child will listen to their internal cues.

In summary, “Adults are responsible for what to eat and when to eat, and children are responsible for how much to eat (i.e. determining when they are full) and whether to eat.[x]

[i]  Chan, L. Magarey, A. M. & Daniels, L. A. (2011) Maternal Feeding Practices and Feeding Behaviors of Australian Children Aged 12-36 Months. Maternal and Child Health Journal,15, 1363-1371. 

[ii] Williams, L. K., Veitch, J. & Ball, K. (2011) What Helps Children Eat Well? A Qualitative Exploration of Resilience Among Disadvantaged Families . Health Education Research, 26(2), 296-307.

[iii] Williams, L. K., Veitch, J. & Ball, K. (2011) What Helps Children Eat Well? A Qualitative Exploration of Resilience Among Disadvantaged Families . Health Education Research, 26(2), 296-307.

[iv] Campbell, K. J., Crawford, D. A. & Hesketh, K. D. (2007) Australian Parents’ View of their 5-6 year-old children’s food choices. Health Promotion International, 22, 1-8.

[v] Williams, L. K., Veitch, J. & Ball, K. (2011) What Helps Children Eat Well? A Qualitative Exploration of Resilience Among Disadvantaged Families . Health Education Research, 26(2), 296-307.

[vi] Birch, L.  L. (1999) Development of Food Preferences.  Annual Review of Nutrition, 101, 539-49.

[vii] Birch, L.  L. (1999) Development of Food Preferences.  Annual Review of Nutrition, 101, 539-49.

[viii] Birch, L. L. & Davison, K. K. (2001) Family Environmental Factors Influencing the Developing Behavioral Controls of Food Intake and Childhood Overweight.   Pediatric Clinical North America Journal, 48, 893-907.

[ix] De Jong, E., Visscher, T. L. S., HiraSing, R. A., Seidell, J. C. & Renders, C. M. (2014) Home Environnmental Determinants of Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Across Different SES Backgrounds.  Pediatric Obesity, 10, 134-140.

[x] Coleman, G., Horodynski, M. A., Contreras, D. & Hoerr, S. M.

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One thought on “Helping Children Learn to Eat Healthy

  1. As a Certified Holistic Health & Nutrition Specialist, I am SO impressed with these well-thought-out-tips that you have shared here! I will be definitely be sharing these with the families I work with! Thank you for a great article!

    Like

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