It is of utmost importance for parents and caregivers to provide children with positive mentorship during food preparation and meal times. As children form their own eating behaviors through their experiences with food and from the people with whom they eat (Savage, 2007), parents and caregivers need to realize they themselves are the models to instill healthy eating habits for kids (Scaglioni, 2011). Fun educational dialogue during grocery shopping, food preparation and throughout meals all influence a child’s attitude toward food and future food habits. Below are seven important tips to support your children in healthy development of food knowledge and behaviors.
- Grocery shop together. While shopping, talk about what foods look like, ask your children to find certain foods by giving them clues (go ahead, be creative and silly) and start putting meal ideas together as the shopping progresses. Decide on a few family recipes and attach catchy names such as, “Simpsons Super Salmon with Party Potatoes and Cool Cucumber Salad.”
- Challenge yourself and your children to fill the cart with approximately 80% of the food from the periphery of grocery store. Why? This is usually where the fresh, healthiest and unprocessed food is displayed. While most kids love this challenge, it also sets good habits into motion.
- Expect your children to put away the groceries at home. Communicate where things belong. When the children know where healthy foods reside, it helps them start taking responsibility for their own healthy food choices. Plus, it feels good for both parties when the child doesn’t have to rely on an adult to nourish them at all times.
- Organize set days for each child to help with meal preparation. This gives you one-on-one attention with a child (which we all tend to love) while they learn how to prepare and learn various cooking techniques. Even a two-year-old is able to wash vegetables, fill a pot with water, place ingredients into a bowl and wash the counter. The older the child, the more they can help. Added bonus: when children become comfortable preparing healthy food in the kitchen, their new found confidence usually trickles into other areas of their lives.
- While cooking, talk about how our bodies gain energy from the food we eat it. Ask fun open ended questions such as, what will an onion do for the child’s energy level compared to a sweet potato? How long do they think the energy from these foods will last in their bodies? The answers you hear will likely lead to laughter. As the children become older, expand into more details as you cook together to include concepts of empty calories versus dense nutritional foods and how a variety of healthy foods best meets our nutritional needs. Focus on the foods we prefer to support healthy eating for kids because when we focus on the foods not to eat, it tends to deplete the fun.
- Create a fun and light hearted mealtime as children are more likely to eat what is on their plate when positive emotions are present. Ask about funny occurrences that may have happened throughout their days and share fun details about your own day while enjoying the meal. A child who tries a new food deserves praise, which will also help their future likelihood of trying more new foods. A child who is forced to eat a food they dislike will likely lead to disliking the food long term. When a child repeatedly tries a food they initially dislike, this actually increases the likelihood they will eventually enjoy the food (Benton, 2004). Sharing the fact that taste buds change overtime may help the children “retest” their taste buds as time marches on.
- Occasionally, discuss how each member of the family feels after eating certain meals. This will help children slow down and realize the difference they feel after consuming various healthy foods compared to unhealthy choices. Additionally, asking them how their bodies feel one hour after eating is often interesting for all involved, especially when sweets are consumed. These short discussions help children stay in tune with their bodies and lead them on a healthy path for life.
If you are looking to help more kids have healthier eating habits, the online Master of Science in Nutrition Education includes a course on Health in the School Environment which discusses educational programs and nutrition and health policies that are targeted to improve the overall health and wellbeing of students.
Benton, D. (2004). Role of parents in the determination of the food preferences of children and the development of obesity. International Journal of Obesity, 28, 858–869.
Savage, J., Fisher, J., Birth, L. (2008). Parental Influence on Eating Behavior. The Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, 35(1), 22-34.
Scaglioni, S., Arrizza, C., Vecchi, F., Tedeschi, S. (2011). Determinants of children’s eating behavior. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 94, 6.
About the Author
Trina C. Ulrich, MD is a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Health Studies at American University, teaching Sports Nutrition and Sports Psychology. Trina is passionate about incorporating her medical & nutrition knowledge, experience in clinical medicine, hospital education, wellness program development, private consulting and teaching. She takes special interest in the overall science of the human body as well as interactions between the body, mind and environment, all while respecting human biodiversity. Trina brings a unique angle to the students in the Department of Health Studies by incorporating her diversified background into her teaching and mentoring.
If you are interested in learning more about the online Master’s in Nutrition Education and how you can help educate others on living healthier lives, contact us at 855-725-7614 to speak to one of our admissions representatives or request more information.