Today’s food environment is not good. Fast food is everywhere. Corporations spend billions of dollars on marketing to convince you to eat their unhealthy products. Junk food is used as a reward for even the most mundane accomplishments. All of this has made it increasingly difficult to ensure your child develops lifelong healthy eating habits.
Fortunately you still have a big advantage in this otherwise dismal situation.
You, as a parent, have the majority of control of the foods that your child eats. You are also in a unique position to teach them the skills they need to navigate the food environment they’re now faced with. Here are a few useful strategies you can employ to make sure your child grows up to become a healthy eater.
Develop cooking skills
One of the most important skills you can teach your child is cooking. Reheating your favorite pre-prepared frozen meals doesn’t count either! Cooking meals from scratch helps give kids a better appreciation of where food comes from. It also ensures that they’ll have the ability to make healthy meals when they grow up and you’re not around to cook for them anymore.
It doesn’t need to be complicated. Focus on preparing simple meals at home from fresh and raw ingredients. You can start by having your child to do some of the basic prep work, like washing or cutting up vegetables. When they get older they can begin to take on more responsibility. Take them grocery shopping with you. Or perhaps they can be responsible for preparing one meal/week for the family? Another tip is to ask them to help plan your family’s menu for the week. Planning a menu gives them ownership over the food they’ll make and teaches them useful organizational skills they’ll need when they eventually have to do it for themselves.
Be a good role model
We all know that children follow the examples that are set for them. Before you can hope to be a good role model for your child you need to examine your own relationship with food. Do you reward yourself with junk food? Do you over-indulge in certain situations? Do you skip meals? Until you identify and begin to deal with your own issues with food it will be a challenge to set a good example for your child.
Of course part of being a good role model is practicing what you preach. If you expect your kids to pack a lunch so should you. If you show them that you enjoy eating a variety of healthy foods they’ll be more likely to try them too when offered.
As a family, you should also try minimizing the amount of meals that you eat out at restaurants. Research has shown that restaurant meals tend to have lower nutritional quality (lower in micronutrients and higher in calories and sodium) than meals prepared at home. If you make eating out a treat, your child will be less likely to rely on restaurant meals when they grow up.
This point may seem a little counter-intuitive, but it’s also important not to obsess about everything that your child eats. Healthy eating should be an enjoyable experience, not an exercise in deprivation. Part of teaching your child about healthy eating is about instilling the concept of balance.
When you obsess about food you run the real risk of your child developing an eating disorder or having a poor self-body image when they get older. Unless there is a medical reason to do so, you shouldn’t count your child’s calories or be otherwise ultra-restrictive with their diet. At the end of the day kids are kids. They’re going to be exposed to lots of “less than ideal foods” and it is okay for them to indulge from time to time.
Regarding body weight, it’s true that childhood obesity is on the rise, however, it’s important to never blame your child for any weight issues they may have. Always frame conversations about food and nutrition about health, not weight or body image. Remember it is you providing them the majority of food that they are eating.
Other quick tips
Pack a school lunch – Pizza. Burgers. Fries. Chicken nuggets. Too often this is what’s on the menu in the school cafeteria. Until that changes, it’s better for your child to “brown bag it” with healthier options instead.
Have healthy snacks on hand – Clean out your pantry. Throw away the junk food. It’s much better to have fresh fruit and vegetables available for your kids to munch on if they get hungry during the day.
Serve your child breakfast everyday – The old adage is true. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Eating breakfast curbs hunger and means your child will be less likely to overeat later in the day.
Limit sugar-sweetened beverages – This includes soda, sports drinks and juice (both natural and artificial). Sugar-sweetened beverages provide calories but don’t fill you up the way normal food does. Instead offer your child water or milk when they are thirsty.
Get back to family meals – People are on the go more often than they used to be. Aim to make the family dinner the norm again rather than the exception.
Don’t clean your plate – Don’t force children to finish everything on their plates. Start with smaller portions and allow your children to use their internal signals to decide how much and what to eat. If they’re hungry they will eat.
Skip the multivitamin – Despite what the advertisements say, if your child is eating a healthy, balanced diet there is no need to provide them with a daily multivitamin.
Given today’s environment it can be challenging, but with a little effort you can make a big difference towards improving your child’s nutrition and instilling good eating habits that will last a lifetime. Best of luck in raising your own healthy eater!
**original article published on dietitianabroad.com on October 26, 2013