I often find myself reminding parents that children learn to eat much in the same way that they learn to walk, talk, read and write. It is with encouragement and by example that children learn and this applies to healthy eating habits as well. Children will experience hunger and through a process of introducing solids to complement a once milk only diet, children learn to chew and swallow with relative ease. Making healthy food choices is not, however a natural instinct. When given a choice, most young children would choose the least healthy option. The responsibility of maintaining a nutritionally sound diet, therefore, remains the responsibility of the parent.
While you cannot expect children to be responsible for their food choices, you can certainly teach them how to eat healthily by ensuring that you:
1. Provide a variety of healthy foods at meal times.
This might seem fairly obvious but by presenting a healthy, well balanced plate of food, you are teaching without words. Children cannot be expected to choose healthy foods without exposure from an early age.
2. Eat as many meals as possible together as a family.
Meal times should be a positive experience as they are a great opportunity to promote a healthy relationship with food. Shared meals are also a perfect opportunity to set an example as parents.
3. Set the example for healthy eating.
If you do not eat something, you cannot expect your children to eat it. At the same time, eliminating foods from your children’s diet based on parental preferences is not advisable. Each different food offers a different benefit and it is therefore important to present your children with the opportunity to eat a varied diet. If you are not willing to compromise on occasion, creativity will be essential. Use the lunch box if necessary.
4. The option to make a healthy choice must always be available.
Even if your children do not like vegetables, make them and serve them. It is best to pair one liked vegetable with a not-so-liked vegetable (just 1/2 a cup will do). Do not force your children to eat it but do not allow them to dictate what is served. Then be sure to eat that vegetable off your own plate.
5. Educate your children in fun and creative ways.
Do not leave the responsibly of nutrition education and creating healthy eating habits to your child’s school teachers. While lessons on healthy eating might be covered, they cannot be revisited sufficiently nor can they have value without the daily practice of healthy eating.
Growing vegetables with your children can increase their interest and the likelihood of consumption. It need not be a very big garden, Start with green beans, cherry tomatoes or spinach. Nurturing vegetables will nurture responsibility.
Involve your children in shopping and food preparation with age appropriate activities. Weighing the fruit and vegetables is a task you can delegate to children from a fairly young age. Chopping veggies or setting the table are subtle ways of encouraging the intake of healthy foods and introducing children to the responsibility that good nutrition requires.
Involve your children in weekly menu planning and within reason, allow them to the choose meals they would like to eat but you must have the final say and be sure to include the vegetables they may intend to avoid. Planning a weekly menu can encourage variety and open the door for discussions about food and healthy eating, outside of meal times.
6. Do not make a fuss of your child’s eating habits.
As mentioned above, positive, relaxing meal times are very important and I really cannot stress enough just how vital it is not to create issues surrounding food. Children will not starve themselves easily but if you allow them to use food to manipulate you, they will not hesitate. As I said, the responsibility lies with the parents and this includes control. Do not force a child to finish their food or punish them for not doing so. Never use treat foods as a punishment or reward.
Making the effort to help your children develop healthy eating habits from the get go and subtly encouraging them to make healthy choices will reap untold rewards.