You may be in the privileged position where your kids would rather sit and eat a bowl of peas and sweetcorn than to reach for a bag of crisps without any further input. For many parents, however, introducing their kids to a balanced, healthy diet can take some work. Fortunately, the desired result is never impossible and there are some basic steps that can be taken at any stage in the child’s development to build a genuine preference for good food.
1. Be Open-Minded About What They Want to Eat
When dealing with the eating habits of kids, it is not about dieting or weight-loss, but simply about balance. Some foods are always going to be worse than others, but parents should take care not to restrict any food outright. Indeed, some studies suggest that banning foods from their child’s plate has been linked to the development of eating disorders later. Instead, the focus should be on encouragement, through suggesting healthier alternatives to junk food and making sure to set an example by consuming such foods themselves.
2. Make Healthy Options Available
When a child’s dietary options are presented as regular visits to fast food restaurants and burgers and fries at home, this will shape their own approach to food. However, kids tend to eat whatever they can get their hands on – in the absence of a bag of chocolate, they might be more inclined to eat a bag of grapes. Naturally, if it is not there, they can’t eat it, and so ensuring that there is always a healthy option in the house can assist in getting the right results.
3. Try Not to Associate Foods with being Good or Bad
There are 2 reasons to remain neutral when categorising food. Firstly, it can make for bad habits. Secondly, children have a penchant for testing boundaries, and may be more inclined to choose a certain food because they have been told that it is the bad option and no other reason. Instead of labelling foods as such, a process of association can be far superior. Simple things like milk strengthening bones, healthy breakfasts helping them to concentrate and fruit rejuvenating them when playing can form healthy associations with their diet.
4. Praise Positive Choices
Without delving too deep into positive reinforcement, receiving commendation for making the right choice works equally well in children as it does in adults. Something as simple as a ‘well done’ when they make the healthy choice will encourage children to do the same in the future.
5. Offer Advice on Wrong Choices
While subtle acknowledgement of the right choice is the correct course of action in most cases, condemnation for making the wrong one is the wrong approach. Be on hand to offer alternatives or discuss why something is unhealthy in such cases. Try to replace chocolate with equally sweet but far healthier alternatives such as grapes or replace fries with homemade alternatives in such cases until picking the healthier option becomes second nature.
6. Be Generous with Praise but Limit Rewards
Praise and acknowledgement are good for forming habits but using food as a reward may have the opposite effect. Offering chocolate or another unhealthy snack as a reward for tidying a room often sounds convenient, and usually works too, but this can have a negative impact on the perception of food and lead to further weight-related issues later in life.
7. Eat Together
The best way to form the correct eating habits in children is to lead by example, and this can be achieved by sitting together for family dinners. In addition to helping the overall familial atmosphere as members get to discuss their day and generally interact, it normalises the idea of eating well. If this is not something that happens already, it can be a good idea to build up to it rather than to totally disrupt the current routine – simply starting with one day each week and then moving up as time passes can be an effective habit builder.
8. Prepare in the Kitchen, Not at the Table
For larger families, it can often be tempting to cook the food and then present it in such a way that family members can take what they want. While convenient, it overlooks the fact that portion control is rarely at the forefront of a child’s mind. While parents await the time that they can adequately choose their portion sizes, it can be favourable to build a perception of how big a healthy portion should be by preparing them fully before they reach the table.
9. Involve the Kids in the Decisions
Meal plans and dietary requirements see plenty of responsibility falling on the parents, but kids thrive on making choices. Something as simple as asking them what they do and do not like from the weekly meal gives them this impression of involvement and enables the parent to focus on the healthy choices that they enjoyed the most.
10. Take Advantage of Help and Advice
Kids do not come with an instruction manual, and there will be people around that have more experience with the diets of youngsters. Their GP, day care providers and other parents can all be sources of inspiration, each with different perspectives. Doctors can focus on maintaining a healthy weight, while other parents can be the source of creative means of increasing a child’s intake of fruits and vegetables.