The eating habits your children form when they are young will likely persist into adulthood, so setting a good example now is important. A healthy relationship with food means being able to take pleasure in eating while also listening to the body’s hunger cues. By teaching healthy habits, and modeling these behaviors yourself, you can help your children to maintain a healthy relationship with food. Approaches you can take to help your children to develop healthy eating habits include:
- Guide food choices rather than dictate. Be sure that there are plenty of healthy foods available in the house for your children to choose from. This will teach your children how to make good food selections without being told what to eat.
- Involve your children in grocery shopping and meal preparation. This is a great opportunity to teach your children about healthy food choices. In addition, children are usually more likely to accept foods that they helped to prepare.
- Eat meals together as a family. Giving your kids structure around a consistent mealtime and eating meals together promotes a positive eating experience. If mealtimes are unpleasant, children may learn to associate eating with stress, so try to make mealtimes enjoyable. This also provides an opportunity for parents to set an example of what healthy eating habits look like.
- Discourage eating in front of the television. Distracted eating makes it difficult to pay attention to feelings of fullness and may lead to overeating.
- Encourage your kids to eat slowly. The brain takes about 15 minutes to register that the stomach is full, so eating slowly and waiting a few minutes to take a second helping helps to prevent overeating.
- Do not place your overweight child on a restrictive diet. Rather, encourage healthy foods and physical activity as part of the daily routine.
- Never use food as a punishment or a reward. Withholding food as punishment may lead to children worrying that they will not get enough to eat and can result in overeating. On the other hand, when food such as sweets is used as a reward, that type of food is seen as more valuable than others. For example, saying that a child must eat all of their broccoli before getting dessert sends the message that dessert is better than broccoli.
- Do away with the “Clean Plate Club.” It is important to allow children to listen to their body’s internal hunger cues. By forcing children to clean their plates, we are forcing them to ignore their body’s signals of fullness.
- Don’t get frustrated if your kids don’t like certain foods. We can’t force or bribe kids to eat, but we can provide healthy choices and set a positive example. Encourage your kids to try new foods, but if they don’t want to, that’s fine. This allows kids to make decisions for themselves and they will be more likely to try new foods in the future. Keep offering these new foods, and eventually, your kids will try them. Patience is key.
- Have a healthy relationship with food yourself. Your children will model your behavior, so set a good example. Don’t categorize foods as “good” or “bad.” Avoid dieting, counting calories, or talking poorly about your own body. Focus on choosing nutritious foods and incorporating physical activity into your lifestyle.
- You don’t have to be perfect. It’s not realistic to expect that your diet will be balanced all of the time. The goal is to have a diet that is overall nutritious and also includes room for treats in moderation.
Parents have the opportunity to help their children to foster a healthy relationship with food. The Ellyn Satter division of responsibility is a wonderful guideline. This philosophy states that the parent is responsible for what, when, and where to eat while the child is responsible for if and how much to eat. For more information, visit the Ellyn Satter Institute at https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/