How to Teach Children to Nurture Healthy Eating Habits?
One of the very important parts of being a parent is creating different kinds of healthy habits, for example towards eating different kinds of food, that will follow our children throughout their lifetimes and shape them as they mature. It’s never too early to encourage your children to start healthy eating habits, in fact, the earlier you start the quicker they’re likely to catch on. Installing a healthy lifestyle in your children when they are young can help build the framework for an entire lifetime of healthy habits. But then we are faced with a million-dollar question – what is the right way to do that?
When thinking about how to encourage your children to eat healthier, the focus is usually on what children are eating. In the attempt to do the best for the health of our little ones we aks and try to answer millions of questions. Are they eating too many sweets? Are they eating fruits and vegetables? Do they get enough protein? The list goes on. But too often parents miss the bigger picture. Your role as parents is much more important than just serving the right kinds of food. Your job is to help your children foster a healthy relationship with food.
Unfortunately, many of us do not have the most healthy approach to eating. The reasons for that are numerous, but usually, that is something that we carry with ourselves since childhood. We all have at least that ONE meal that we get sick just thinking about, which we were usually forced to eat when we were younger because it’s healthy. For me, that’s the spinach I eat in kindergarten! To this day I get goosebumps just smelling it.
Having said this, how do we avoid passing these pitfalls onto our children? How can we help them establish a life-long relationship with food that is positive, healthy, and sustainable? We tried answering these questions, and here are some suggestions on how to do it :
Strike a healthy balance instead of having strict ” food rules”
First rule – no food is bad food. Ice cream, chocolate, you name it. None of it is bad…it’s food. If we label food as bad, what does that say about us when we eat these “bad” foods?
We should not expect our children to always eat a perfect diet. Yes, the goal should be for your child to eat a healthy diet, but there are always holidays, celebrations, birthday parties, or random days when ‘bad’ food comes out. Labeling food as “good” or “bad” sets your children up for failure when they do eat these foods, as they inevitably will. This also confuses them, they may think, “If chocolate ice cream tastes so good, how can it be bad? ”
Ideally, all food groups should be represented in a child’s diet. The trick is in balancing.
But raising healthy kids not only means selecting a balanced, healthy diet for them. It also means giving them the tools to navigate our complex food world.
While avoiding particular foods or food groups might work for adults, it can set up a negative relationship with food in children, resulting in undesirable eating behaviors such as sneaking certain foods, overeating, or despising that food when they grow up.
Engage them in the process
Julie Negrin, a certified nutritionist, and cooking instructor emphasize that getting kids involved in the kitchen while we make meals, can transform their relationship with food. She says that because kids feel little control over their day to day environment, helping with meals gives children a sense of ownership and makes it more likely they will eat the meal.
“I encourage parents to have kids pick out new vegetables at the market or flip through cookbooks for menu ideas,” she says. “Kids have been helping with meal preparation in almost every culture for thousands of years. It’s how they find their place in the “tribe” and the world around them.”
Make the unfamiliar familiar and fun
Research suggests that repeated exposure is the most powerful tool when it comes to helping children develop healthy eating habits. But experts in behavioral economics say parents need to go a step further by making healthy foods highly accessible. They suggest that it’s much more effective than healthy ingredients are visible on a daily basis, rather than just including them all of a sudden in a meal. So layout an attractive bowl of fruit on the kitchen table. Include veggies with meals and while you’re preparing dinner. Studies show the visibility of food increases the desire to eat it or at least try it.
Also, the way you layout food can be very helpful! We all know, that even as grown-ups, we like to see a well designed and appealing dish, it instantly increases our desire to eat it.
For example, one research showed that when a group of 4 to 7-year-olds were presented with two versions of fruit, one cut into fun shapes and the other not, the kids presented with the fun shapes ate twice as much fruit. It’s important to remember that kids like fun. And if we can present food in a fun and attractive way it can pique their interest and desire.
Entice them with food names and give interesting comparisons
Parents can learn something that restaurant owners already know – you need to make food sound tantalizing. In his studies, Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, demonstrates that the name we give a food can make a big difference in how children perceive it. In one of his studies, when the researchers called veggies names like “X-ray carrots” or “princess peas” kids were 60% more likely to try it.
“Dinosaur broccoli reminds kids of dinosaurs—and they think they are cooler,” he says.
In addition to this you can make interesting comparisons with foods and their favorite cartoon characters, and the ‘powers’ and the benefits they get from eating a certain ingredient. We all remember Popeye and the strength he got from spinach, and all of us wanted to be as strong and fearless as he was!
Lead by example
This may be the most important advice. One of the best ways to instill a healthy lifestyle in your children is to lead one yourself. Children are constantly picking up on our habits and behaviors, and parents are seen as role models whose habits should be taken after. Even if you hate eating something it doesn’t mean your child needs to. If they see you avoiding certain kinds of food they will probably do it too. Give them a chance to try everything and decide for themselves!
With the goal of promoting healthy eating habits among children, the Novak Djokovic Foundation created a very interesting project called “ABC of Better me”. This project was created to meet the needs of children, their parents and preschool institutions in Serbia regarding the development of healthy eating habits early in life. Young children often imitate the eating behaviors of their peers, parents and other significant adults in their lives. For that reason, the Novak Djokovic Foundation sets up and maintains gardens for children within preschools, organizes teacher training on gardening with preschoolers, culinary workshops for children and their parents and a visit to local organic producer’s farm. You can find out more about the “ABC of Better Me” project right here.