Helping Your Kids Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food

Food, glorious food! Not only is it fundamental to our survival; it’s at the very heart of our lives and our diverse cultural backgrounds. And it plays a starring role in our social gatherings, whether at home or at a favorite restaurant. Our memories and our emotions, too, are inextricably bound up with food.

However, “there is no one ‘perfect’ way to eat, or one ideal relationship with food,” says Isabel Reckson, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist in the Divisions of Pediatric Endocrinology and Pediatric Nephrology at Weill Cornell Medicine. Every family and every child is unique, she says.

“Generally, a healthy relationship with food allows us to make choices that honor our body and our hunger without guilt. Balance and flexibility in our eating choices are paramount to that relationship, one we often need to work on and reassess throughout our lives as we grow and change.”

What healthy eating habits can parents foster in their children?

Parents are the greatest role models for their young children and teens alike, starting with positive language around food and food choices. Reckson recommends an all-inclusive approach to food, in which no foods are “good” or “bad.”

“Labeling foods as healthy vs. unhealthy can teach children that they’re doing something wrong when they eat the ‘bad’ ones,” she says. “Best to refrain from talking about your diet or your dissatisfaction with your body or weight in front of your children. And try to avoid stigmatizing entire food groups by saying, for example, ‘we don’t eat carbs’ or ‘fats make you fat.’”

When a child “sneaks” food

One of the most common behaviors we see in children as they approach their preteen years is “sneaking” foods says Reckson, “Parents may spot candy wrappers or a couple of stray French fries in their kid’s bookbag or under their bed. Children often sneak food items they feel are forbidden when they think they’ll get in trouble for eating them.”

Should children eat three meals a day?

Although there is no one-size-fits-all meal plan that works for all children, those who eat regular meals and avoid going long hours without eating are better able to connect to their hunger cues, Reckson says.

Kids who skip meals may experience excessive hunger, which is likely to lead to food behaviors that produce guilt. That’s why Reckson encourages mindful eating practices—being aware of what you’re eating while you’re eating—as a way to stay in touch with hunger cues. “Try slowing down during meals, chewing food well and waiting 15 minutes before taking second portions to allow food to digest,” she suggests.

What types of foods help kids feel full and satisfied?

Fiber is the number-one key to fullness, she says. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that digests slowly in the body, keeping us full and energized for longer periods. High-fiber foods include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains such as whole-wheat bread, whole-grain crackers, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal, quinoa, farro, brown and black rice and other ancient grains
  • Beans and lentils
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower, flax, chia and hemp

At meals and even snacks, include a protein source to further promote that feeling of fullness. Protein can be animal-based or plant-based. Animal protein sources include:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy products like cheese, yogurt and milk
  • Meat, fish and poultry

Plant proteins include:

  • Beans and lentils
  • Soy products like tofu, edamame, soybeans and tempeh
  • Nuts, nut butters and seeds

Hydration is also key. “Drinking water helps us to feel full and transports nutrients throughout the body, says Reckson.

She also advises parents to encourage and plan routine meal and snack times when possible. “Our bodies love predictability! Eating at similar times day by day can help us improve the way we tune into our hunger cues,” she explains.

Where do snacks fit in?

Adding snacks can help to stave off excessive hunger as well, providing an extra opportunity to meet a child’s nutrient needs. For example, most kids don’t get enough calcium, which is essential for bones and teeth. Consider calcium-rich snacks like yogurt, cheese, edamame, figs or almonds.

Reckson recommends filling, nutritious snacks that include fiber, protein, or both. Some of her favorites are:

  • Trail mix (pumpkin seeds with popcorn and dried fruit or dark chocolate chips)
  • Roasted chickpeas or chickpea puffs
  • Apple or banana slices with nut butter
  • Whole-grain crackers with hummus or guacamole 

Parents can work with their child to plan structured snacks—a great way to discourage open-ended, sporadic grazing.

Two favorite recipes

Asked for her favorite kid-friendly recipes, Reckson offers the following:

Butternut squash chickpea mac and cheese

Choose a chickpea pasta, available at most major grocery stores or online. This recipe is delicious and rich in fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium. Pair it with your favorite green veggie. (She typically adds in spinach or broccoli.) You can also make this recipe dairy-free or vegan by using nutritional yeast instead of cheese. 

Overnight  Oatmeal

Oats are a fiber and protein-rich whole grain. They also have key nutrients that can be challenging to get in a child's diet such as iron and zinc. 


  • 3/4 cup of dry  oats  (can be rolled  oats or quick-cooking  oats)
  • 1/3 cup of plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 cup of milk of choice
  • 1/2 cup of fruit of choice (Reckson likes to use banana or berries) 
  • 1 tbsp. of nut or seed butter of choice (almond butter, peanut butter, sunflower seed butter)
  • 1/2 tsp. of vanilla extract 
  • 1 tbsp. of chia seeds or flax seeds
  • Optional mix-ins: cocoa powder/cocoa nibs, unsweetened coconut, cinnamon, nuts (walnuts, almond slivers, pecans), with fresh fruit to top

Mix all the ingredients in a jar and refrigerate for 4 hours (or overnight).

How does good nutrition contribute to your child’s health?

“We know that fruits and vegetables can prevent certain diseases, and that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish support heart health,” says Reckson. But the best way to nurture your child’s future health is to offer a variety of foods, starting from a young age.

If your child’s relationship with food is problematic, or if you or your child wishes to make dietary changes, reach out for help. Building a healthy relationship with food may require a team approach that includes a registered dietician, a mental health provider and, of course, family support.

Above all, focus on small, realistic dietary changes en route to more ambitious, thoroughgoing change.

Top 10 pointers for parents

Here are Reckson’s top strategies for parents committed to helping their kids move toward a guilt-free, balanced relationship with the food they eat:

  1. Have open, honest conversations as a family around food choices.
  2. Promote meals and snacks eaten at the table or an open room.
  3. Refrain from reprimanding children and teens for eating certain foods, even when you feel strongly about these.
  4. Limit food rewards and punishments. That means shying away from statements like “you can have ice cream if you finish your broccoli.”
  5. Provide structure and routines where meals and snacks are concerned.
  6. Expose your children to fruits and vegetables by putting them on their plates consistently, without requiring that they be eaten.
  7. Be role models for your kids by trying a variety of foods yourselves.
  8. Create new, positive routines, such as themed family meals like “Taco Tuesday” or “New Food Friday.”
  9. Set aside time in your week for family meals—even if it’s only possible to eat together on weekends.
  10. Cooking and food shopping with your kids can encourage their acceptance of diverse and new foods.

If your child could use support around family food issues, make an appointment with a dietician.