How to Help Your Child Eat Healthy
One of the top concerns I receive from parents is their children’s picky eating habits. They know their children should eat healthy but feel like mealtime becomes a battleground as the children routinely choose not to eat, rather than eat healthy options. So in exasperation and concern that their child simply won’t get enough calories, parents give up … for the moment.
Without doubt, instilling good eating habits in children is an essential part of building a strong foundation for a healthy future. As childhood obesity and related health concerns continue to soar to unprecedented levels, it is time to start inspecting and rebuilding the foundation of America’s health.
Children’s eating behaviors and food preferences start developing as soon as they begin to transition from breast milk or formula to “real” foods, highlighting the important role parents play in building a strong foundation of health.
Introducing a variety of flavors and textures in the context of low sugar, high nutrient dense foods such as vegetables and fruits, is important for building an acceptance of and preference for healthy foods that guard against future health problems.
Introducing high sugar foods too soon is a major roadblock to developing a preference for healthy food in children. The problem is that these foods are often well-accepted by infants and toddlers, so the eager parent that wants to see their child eat “real” food will offer these well-liked options. Even “healthy” foods like bananas, sweet potatoes, and fruit begin training an infant’s pallet to prefer sweet. Instead, weaning with high-fat, low-sugar foods like avocado, cooked egg yolk, and green vegetables will develop an acceptance of those foods. It is important to remember that breastmilk is naturally sweetened and therefore, most infants will not readily accept these less-sweet options, but with consistent introduction, a little creativity (ie. allowing the baby to play with and finger the foods), and combining breastmilk with these new options, the baby will soon learn to enjoy healthy flavors.
High sugar foods commonly given to toddlers and children include foods made with refined flours, such as cereals, breads, crackers, pretzels, and pastas. Fruit juices, flavored milk and soda are particularly harmful for children’s health, contributing to unhealthy weight changes and disrupting normal cholesterol and blood sugar levels. As these foods increase their blood sugar, trigger the reward center of the brain, and feed bacteria in the gut, children will begin craving these high-sugar options and avoiding the healthier foods.
A preference for sweet snacks and beverages is established through three avenues of learning: a familiarization with sweet foods through early introduction, observation of parents who role model the consumption of sugary snacks and beverages, and associating sweet foods with good behavior through reward.
The impact of the home environment and parental role modeling in the development of children’s eating behaviors should not be underestimated. The environment and choices provided in the home are directly linked with long-term dietary choices and subsequent health of the child. Healthy home-prepared meals not only provide better nutrition, but also offer the opportunity for involving children in food preparation and teaching them how to prepare healthy meals. Children are more likely to consume foods they have been involved in preparing, and this can become a successful tactic for getting your child to eat healthy foods that they would not otherwise choose.
Family Meal Time
Eating as a family during mealtimes provides an opportunity for role modeling good food choices, while applying necessary guidance in these areas, as well. Contrary to some beliefs, researchers have found that a more authoritative parenting style in food choice and eating behavior has actually been correlated with positive health outcomes in children. This parenting style is actively involved in children’s dietary choices and offerings. Parenting styles that are more responsive to children’s requests or lack direct involvement in children’s dietary choices has been associated with a high intake of unhealthy foods that lacked in adequate nutrients. These studies emphasize the importance of adult guidance and direction in building a strong foundation of healthy eating habits in children. Eating together as a family unit provides an ideal context for adequately parenting children in the area of food choice and eating behavior.
As childhood nutrition and health continues to decline, a growing number of researchers are investigating potential causes of this trend and discovering the importance of establishing healthy eating habits early in life. Children are the hope of the future and good health is paramount to a successful future.
Birch, LL & Doub, AE. (2014). Learning to eat: birth to age 2 y. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 99(3):723S-728S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.069047
Hur et al. (2016). Associations between sugar intake from different food sources and adiposity or cardio-metabolic risk in childhood and adolescence: the korean child–adolescent cohort study. Nutrients. 8(1):20. doi:10.3390/nu8010020
Reicks et al. (2015). Influence of parenting practices on eating behaviors of early adolescents during independent eating occasions: implications for obesity prevention. Nutrients. 7(10):8783–8801. doi:10.3390/nu7105431.
Scaglioni et al. (2011). Determinants of children's eating behavior. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 94(6):2006S-2011S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.001685
Hennessy et al. (2012). Permissive parental feeding behavior is associated with an increase in intake of low-nutrient-dense foods among American children living in rural communities. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 112(1):142-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2011.08.030.
Sleddens et al. (2011). General parenting, childhood overweight and obesity-inducing behaviors: a review. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity. 6(2-2):e12-27. doi: 10.3109/17477166.2011.566339.