The secret to creating healthy eating habits in children

By Tracie Newman, MD Jun 21, 2016

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Eating healthy can be difficult for busy families with young children, especially around the holidays. It is something that requires planning and willpower to avoid unhealthy habits. I often hear parents comment how challenging it is to get young kids to try new foods, especially vegetables. I have found that involving children in their food decisions can go a long way.

Planting and growing food

Involving children in planting or growing their food is a great way to promote healthy eating. Planting and growing food teaches children a new skill while providing a health food source. Studies show that children who help grow or prepare their food are more likely to eat it without complaint. They are also more likely to eat produce and try different foods.

Provide your child choices

When it comes to eating, it is important to give children choices. You can offer them two healthy food options and let them choose which one they would like. This makes children feel like they have an element of control over what they are eating. Always try to let them decide what and how much they are going eat.

Eating as a family

Family meals are beneficial for kids in almost every sense of the word. I recommend setting aside time to eat together as often as possible. Even infants can benefit from this–pull the high chair up to the table and involve them in meals.

Eating together as a family is good for the body and the brain. Research shows that dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary in young children more than being read to aloud. School age children who have regular family meals consistently have higher achievement scores in school. Children who eat regularly with their families are statistically more likely to consume more fruits and vegetables as well as take in less fried foods and soda. They are also much less likely to be overweight as adults.

The benefits continue into adolescence as well. Teens who eat with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, or use illicit drugs. They have decreased school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity. Some studies suggest that teens who eat with their families have lower rates of depression or suicidal thought.

Create opportunities to offer fruits and veggies

Another way to ensure nutrition is to try and include fruits and vegetables at every meal and snack. The goal is to consume at least five fruits and veggies every day. An easy way to do this is to add in fruits and veggies to foods your kids already eat. Some examples are blueberries in pancakes and small vegetables in mac-n-cheese. You can also send fruit packs or veggie slices for school snacks or sport’s team snacks instead of sugary processed packaged food. You can also get your child involved in creating healthy snacks with you. You and your child can make creating food fun by cutting it into fun shapes or characters.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a list of healthy kid snack options you can keep on hand including:

  • Bagels
  • Baked snack chips
  • Bean dip, chickpea spread or hummus, eggplant dip
  • Dried fruit
  • Fresh fruit
  • High-fiber, unsweetened cereals
  • Low-fat cold cut lunch meats
  • Low-fat cottage cheese
  • Low-fat granola bars
  • Low-fat microwave popcorn
  • Low-fat pudding
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Microwaveable, low-fat entrees
  • Nuts
  • Peanut butter
  • Pita bread
  • Prepackaged, precut vegetables with low-fat dips
  • Pretzels
  • Reduced-fat cheese
  • Reduced-fat mayonnaise or fat-free dressings
  • Rice cakes
  • Salsa
  • Skim or one percent fat milk
  • Tofu
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Whole wheat bread

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