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Healthy Eating: Helping Your Child Learn Healthy Eating Habits

Introduction

Childhood is the best time to learn the healthy habits that can last a lifetime.

Healthy eating can help your child feel good, stay at or reach a healthy weight, and have lots of energy for school and play. In fact, healthy eating can help your whole family live better.

 

Healthy eating means eating:

  • Fruits and vegetables.
  • Lean meats.
  • Nonfat and low-fat dairy products.
  • Whole grains.

It also means limiting:

  • Sweet liquids, such as soda, fruit juices, and sport drinks.
  • Fat.
  • Sugar.
  • Highly processed foods.
  • Fast foods.

Healthy eating doesn't mean that your child has to give up all desserts and treats. Those types of foods can be okay now and then. Just remember that moderation is the goal.

Is it okay for children to be vegetarians?

Vegetarian diets can be healthy for children and teens. A strict vegetarian diet (vegan) that does not include meat, poultry, fish, dairy, or eggs might require some planning to be sure your child is getting enough calories, vitamins, and minerals. Young vegan children tend to be slightly smaller but still within normal ranges for growth. And they tend to catch up to other children in size as they get older. Parents can get help from a registered dietitian who is experienced in vegan diets.

A vegetarian diet that includes milk products and eggs can be a healthy way to eat for children and teens. In fact, it can be a great way to get them into a lifelong habit of healthy eating.

If your teen decides to become a vegetarian, teach him or her how to plan meals to get all the right nutrients every day. Teens need calcium and vitamin D. And iron is especially important for teen girls who are menstruating. Talk with your doctor about how much of these vitamins and minerals your child needs. Ask if your teen needs to take a daily supplement.

Test Your Knowledge

A vegetarian diet is not healthy for my growing child.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    Actually, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be a great way to get children into a lifelong habit of healthy eating.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    Yes, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be a great way to get children into a lifelong habit of healthy eating.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

Teaching and modeling healthy eating habits is crucial in this age of high-fat fast foods, ever-present soda pop machines, and increasing numbers of obese and overweight children.

Children who weigh too much may end up with serious health problems, including:

Healthy eating can help your child stay at or reach a healthy weight, grow, and have lots of energy for school and play. It's one of the most important habits you can teach your child to give him or her a healthy life.

Of course, these habits are not just good for children. They're good for the whole family.

Test Your Knowledge

Healthy eating is one of the most important habits I can teach my children.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    Yes, healthy eating habits will help your children stay healthy and feel good as they grow into adults.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    It's true. Healthy eating habits will help your children stay healthy and feel good as they grow into adults.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

Share the responsibility. You decide when, where, and what the family eats. Your child chooses whether and how much to eat from the options you provide.

Young children are good at listening to their bodies. They eat when they're hungry. They stop when they're full. When we try to control how much children eat, we interfere with this natural ability. Keeping this division of responsibility helps your child stay in touch with those internal cues.

Help your children learn to eat slowly and recognize when they are full. Don't let rules, pleading, or bargaining dictate your child's eating patterns.

You can use some or all of the ideas below to get started. You may find other ideas that work for your family, and you can add those to these lists.

First steps

  • Set up a regular snack and meal schedule. Most children do well with three meals and two or three snacks a day. When your child's body is used to a schedule, hunger and appetite are more regular. This helps your child feel more in tune with his or her body.
  • Find at least one food from each food group that your child likes, and make sure it is readily available most of the time. Don't worry if your child likes only one vegetable or one or two kinds of meats or fruits. Kids tend to accept new foods gradually, and their preferences expand over time.
  • Have your child eat a healthy breakfast. It helps your child stay at a healthy weight. Eating breakfast starts the process for using calories throughout the day. If you are in a hurry, try cereal with milk and fruit, nonfat or low-fat yogurt, or whole-grain toast.
  • Eat as a family as often as possible. Keep family meals pleasant and positive.
  • Don't buy junk food. Get healthy snacks that your child likes, and keep them within easy reach.
  • Be a good role model. Your own eating and lifestyle choices are a powerful teaching tool. Your child sees the choices you make and follows your example.

Portion sizes

  • Serve modest portions. For example, children between the ages of 2 and 8 should have 2 to 3 ounces of meat or meat alternatives each day. Children between the ages of 9 and 18 should have 5 to 7 ounces of meat or meat alternatives each day. Remember that 3 ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of cards.
  • Limit sweet drinks. Encourage your child to drink water when he or she is thirsty.
  • Offer lots of vegetables and fruits every day. Children between the ages of 2 and 8 should have 1 to 1½ cups of vegetables and 1 to 1½ cups of fruits each day. Children between the ages of 9 and 18 should have 2 to 3 cups of vegetables and 1½ to 2 cups of fruits each day. That may seem like a lot, but it is not hard to reach this goal. For example, add some fruit to your child's morning cereal, and include carrot sticks in your child's lunch.

After a few days or weeks

  • Offer new food. When trying a new food at a meal, be sure to include another food that your child already likes. Don't give up on offering new foods. Children may need many tries before they accept a new food.
  • Don't say "Clean your plate." Try not to manage your child's eating with comments such as "Clean your plate" or "One more bite." Your child has the ability to tell when he or she is full. If your child ignores these internal signals, he or she will not be able to know when to stop eating.
  • Make fast food an occasional event. Order the smallest portions available. Get your children in the habit of sharing one small order of french fries.
  • Don't use food as a reward for success in school or sports. For example, don't use favorite foods as rewards for behaving well. And don't reward desired eating behavior (such as finishing a plate of food or trying a new food). If you serve dessert, consider it part of the meal, not a treat to follow the main course.
  • Be a good example. If you don't want your child to eat less nutritious foods (for example, those that contain high amounts of fats or sugar), don't have them in the house. If you eat these foods but try to keep them away from your child, the child will learn to sneak these foods, beg for them, or view them as highly desirable.

Use knowledge to reinforce healthy eating habits

Help your children understand healthy eating by teaching them about food—where it comes from, how it grows, what nutrients it contains, and how many calories (how much energy) it has.

  • Grow some of your own food in your backyard or in a pot on the back porch. Let your children have their own plants to take care of.
  • Let your children start helping you cook as soon as they show interest. Teach them simple, healthy recipes.
  • Let older children help you with shopping. Use it as a chance to teach them about food labels. Challenge them to find healthy foods by reading the labels.
  • At the dinner table, point out the various food groups in the meal. Make a game of naming those food groups to teach children the importance of variety and nutritional requirements.

Test Your Knowledge

It's important to give my child complete freedom when it comes to when, where, and how much to eat.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    Actually, healthy eating is a shared responsibility. You decide when, where, and what the family eats. Your child chooses whether and how much to eat from the options you provide.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    Yes, healthy eating is a shared responsibility. You decide when, where, and what the family eats. Your child chooses whether and how much to eat from the options you provide.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

Now that you have read this information, you are ready to help your child learn healthy eating habits.

Talk with your doctor

If you have questions about this information, print it out and take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to use a highlighter to mark areas or make notes in the margins of the pages where you have questions.

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Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Rhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Last Revised January 25, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2013 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

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