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Three Ways to Foster Healthy Eating Habits in Children



As a parent or caregiver, it is only natural to be concerned about our children’s eating habits. We worry about when they eat, how much they eat, and what they eat. How do we best provide our children with the nutrients and healthy eating habits they need to ensure long lasting health? I want to discuss three caregiver behaviors that have a pervasive impact on the relationship and health habits children develop with food. Instead of discussing the “what” of childhood nutrition I want to discuss the “how”. Children should have ample opportunities to try out a new food and be spared the pervasive food pressures caregivers often coerce. Healthy eating habits are inevitable with a relaxed enjoyable atmosphere, plenty of healthy food choices and good role models.

Don’t make food an issue:

Most of us were raised to “finish your plate, eat your veggies or no dessert”, and the dreaded , “if you behave you can have a treat”. These are all ideas that can create negative connotations to food or instill emotional ties to food. Also, it encourages over eating and the inability to respond properly to satiety. Current research shows that food should not be made into an issue, pushed on a child, or ever used as a reward or punishment. Get in the habit of not trying to regulate how much your child is eating. It is hard to truly convince a worried caregiver that their child is eating enough, but I assure you it should be taken off your worry list. With the exception of a few rare disorders and extremely poor eating conditions, children are innately capable of regulating their calorie intake appropriately to meet the demands of their ever-growing bodies. Don’t obsess over their weight or growth chart. A child’s appetite changes drastically day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month. If childhood eating habits were made into a graph it would look like a roller coaster. The parent’s main job is to control the food options. Have healthy food choices available and allow the child to decide what and how much to eat. They are fully capable of self-regulating when given healthy options. Problems arise when children are persuaded to continue to eating when they are not hungry. This common approach eventually diminishes the child’s natural satiety response and encourages overeating. Eating when hungry and the ability to stop eating with the feeling of fullness is an important behavior that begins in childhood.

Don’t give up on a food:

Never outwardly coerce a food as discussed above, but make a food readily available consistently. This will increase the opportunity for a child to develop a liking for it. I cringe every time I hear a parent or caregiver say, “He/She doesn’t like that food”. Children innately are often not open to trying new foods. It takes time. If they hear you say they don’t like a food and even worse you no longer offer it to them you have taken away the chance to eventually introduce a new food into the child’s cornucopia of likes, thus eliminating the option to acquire a taste for it. Research shows it may take 12-15 exposures to a new food for a child to accept it. First a child sees it on their plate repeatedly, then they may eventually take one bite, then they may eventually take two and so forth. Children learn from repetition and exposure. So don’t give up. Keep offering the broccoli, kale and turnips, and if you are like me it will warm your heart when they begin to like it.

Be a role model:

One of the most important and most challenging influences we can have on our child’s health is setting a good example – No pressure there. It is undeniable that children eat very similar to their family. It is never too soon to be a good example. Interestingly, the mother’s amniotic fluid and breast milk flavor is affected by her diet. If while pregnant and lactating a mother eats a diverse and healthy diet she increases the chances of her child to be more open to these flavors and decreases the chance of her child refusing new foods. Being an example is a family affair and is paramount in childhood nutrition habits. It is just a matter of time before your child is eating just like you. Everyone needs to be on board with setting a good example of healthy eating. This is a good time for the family to make healthy lifestyle improvements. I am not saying to sacrifice your favorite treat, but consider minimizing its frequency. It is good for you and your child to reduce exposure to junk food. Family mealtime is a good opportunity to expose your children to a variety of flavors, texture and scents while keeping a positive pleasant environment around food. It is important to avoid fighting and undesirable behaviors for many reasons: if eating is surrounded by a negative vibe it can influence a poor relationship to food. Once again, you are the role model, not only with food choices but also with attitude choices and staying positive. Setting a consistent good example will no doubt give your little one lifelong, healthy eating habit.


Hopefully, one or two caregivers out there are a little less worried about their child taking that one more bite. We have plenty of other things to worry about. Relax and enjoy eating a plethora of healthy foods with your family. Even if your child is just sitting at the table to socialize, that’s ok. They will let you know if they get hungry, and they can eat then. Staying active, eating healthy and enjoying life are positive role model behaviors that enrich our lives as well as our children’s lives.


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References:

Anzman-Frasca S., et al (2012) Repeated exposure and associative conditioning promote preschool children’s liking of vegetables. Apetite, 58 (2) 543-553. DOI:10.1016/j.appet.2011.11.012.

Beauchamp G.K. & Mennella J.A. (2011) Flavor perception in human infants: development and functional significance. Digestion, 83, 1-6. doi:10.1159/000323397

Cooke L. & Fildes A. (2011) The impact of flavour exposure in utero and during milk feeding on food acceptance at weaning and beyond.

Appetite. 57(3) 808-11. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2011.05.317.

Rio, J. (2000) Eating behavior, children’s nutrition, food preferences. Journal of Pediatrics, 76 (3) S229-S237. http://www.jped.com.br/conteudo/00-76-S229/ing.pdf

Schwartz C., et al. (2011) Development of healthy eating habits early in life. Review of recent evidence and selected guidelines. Appetite, 57 (3) 796-807. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2011.05.316

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