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A Guide to Encouraging Healthy Eating Habits in Your Kids

Published in Pediatrics, For the Health of It, Healthy Eating Tips Author: Clinical Dietitian Allison Doerfler, RDN, LD, CentraCare Clinic

Healthy eating habits are essential for the growth of your children. Establishing a positive mealtime environment where children feel safe and relaxed is critical to learning good eating habits — and just as important as the food we eat. Handling common feeding challenges effectively can help to avoid conflicts at the dinner table and can help your little ones develop a positive relationship with food.

The ideas listed below may help make mealtimes positive, establish appropriate roles, resolve conflict over food and help your children feel secure and comfortable.

  • Serve food family-style (when appropriate). Allowing children to serve themselves promotes control over what and how much they eat. It can also enhance social, motor and language skills, and it contributes to the development of table manners and self-esteem.
  • Avoid controlling behaviors. Avoid bribing, rewarding, coaxing, guilting, punishing and any other forms of pressure. Expecting children to “clean their plate” can lead to overeating and can negatively impact their relationship with food.
  • Make regular mealtimes a priority. Establish when and where food will be served to help your child regulate their appetite. Serve three meals and two or three snacks at the same times each day, no longer than three to four hours apart for older children. Sitting down and eating as a family can offer a sense of comfortability and togetherness.
  • Limit beverage options throughout the day. Children will learn to better manage their appetite by allowing only water between meals and snacks. They will likely come to the table hungry and be open to trying new things.
  • Be the model of good habits. Children and youth learn best from good examples. Dietary habits are often shaped during early childhood, making it a great time to lead by example.
  • Limit distractions during mealtimes. Distractions such as TV, phones or toys discourage socializing at mealtimes and make it harder for children to focus on eating. Allocate other time throughout the day for your children to play.
  • Introduce new foods alongside familiar foods. This will help make introducing new foods easier for everyone. When taking this approach, children will be more open to trying new foods.
  • Serve at least one well-liked food at mealtimes. When introducing new foods, always have at least one food on the table that your children will eat, even if it is just bread or rice. This ensures that children will still have something to eat.
  • Allow children to offer food suggestions. Children who are involved in menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking and serving are more likely to eat and enjoy the meals. Place a notepad on the fridge and allow children to write down preferred menu options for you to consider incorporating when planning future meals.

Feeding Children Ages 6-13

At this age, children start to make more food decisions on their own. They still need adults to make nutritious choices available and guide their eating habits by teaching them why it is important to eat right and how to eat right. In terms of division of responsibilities, the parent is responsible for what food is offered, when food is offered and where it will be eaten. The child is responsible for whether they will eat and how much they choose to eat.

Establishing healthy eating habits is essential in instilling a routine that goes beyond the dinner table. Incorporating these strategies into your home fosters physical strength and mental well-being in your children. We all want your little ones growing up healthy and strong!