If you’re a brand-new parent, then the kind of eater your child becomes may not be top of mind. Yet, when it comes to raising a healthy eater, the earlier you start, the better. The best way to do this? Make eating educational and fun, recommends Ben King, M.D. “Children’s healthy relationship with eating starts by seeing food that’s enjoyable, tastes good, and gives their body what they need to grow and develop,” Dr. King says.
“We want growing kids to have regular access to nutrient-dense foods that provide a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, minerals, and vitamins.” Yet, developing your child’s healthy eating habits will take more than knowing what to serve. For starters, you can:
Especially ones of varying tastes, textures, and colors, including plenty of fruits and vegetables. “Introduce your child to new foods, explain why we eat, why certain foods are good for us, and how they help us to grow and develop,” Dr. King suggests. “I want kids to know what foods are good for them and not just good tasting,” he says. When introducing new foods, present one at a time, so as not to overwhelm your child, and pair the new food with one that your child already likes.
Help your child to choose them by stocking the refrigerator with washed and sliced fruits and vegetables, as well as low-fat yogurt or cheese. Have nuts (providing no one in your family is allergic) as well as whole-grain crackers on hand.
Explain how to make healthy food choices. This will give you a chance to observe what foods your child does and does not like. For example, not all kids like meat, while some do not like--or cannot tolerate--dairy products. Although protein and calcium are essential nutrients, there are sources other than beef, chicken, and milk. “Work with your pediatrician or nutritionist to create a diet with alternative sources of protein,” Dr. King advises.
Such as chips and candy. But don’t ban treats altogether. “Everything is good in moderation,” Dr. King says. “We want kids to enjoy food and sometimes that includes baked goods or sweets. It’s all about striking a balance.”
As long as the snacks are healthy. “Snacking is just eating,” Dr. King notes. Done wisely, it can help fuel children throughout the day and prevent them from getting too hungry in-between meals.
You do not need to force your children to finish everything on their plate. Otherwise, you will train them to ignore their natural feelings of fullness. “We would like our kids to learn to listen to their bodies. When they’re hungry, they should be eating and when they’re full they should stop,” Dr. King says.
How much children eat varies according to their age, size, activity level, and gender. “Since portion sizes are dynamic, it’s helpful to have a reference such as myplate.gov to help choose age-appropriate portions,” Dr. King says. “Most kids who are at a healthy weight will self-regulate, as long as you present them with reasonable portion sizes and teach them to eat when they’re hungry and stop when full. Trust your kids.”
“Eating as a family is important, whatever the makeup of your family is,” Dr. King says. It allows you to not only discuss but also demonstrate healthy eating. It also promotes bonding, which helps children to associate mealtime with family closeness. If you are the only parent home at mealtime, then you should still eat with your children. “Even if two parents can’t be home, try to find whatever time you can to enjoy a meal together,” Dr. King says.
Show your child that you try different wholesome foods and make healthy choices. And start early. “I hope families are teaching their kids about food, especially when they’re young,” Dr. King says. “The lessons that you teach your kids about food and making healthy choices will stick.”