When parents find out that I’m a dietitian and that I do some work with kids, I often get one of two responses. They either ask me how to get their child to eat more veggies or they make a comment, with an uncomfortable giggle, about how bad their child eats. As a parent, you want your child to be well nourished. In an ideal world your child delights in eating broccoli and kale and says “no thank you” to cookies and cake. But, reality is quite different! However, you can still raise a healthy eater who has a good relationship with food.
Here are a few tips to do so:
- Be a health and wellness role model. Your child is watching and learning from you. Create health and wellness habits for yourself that you want your child to have. Teach your child to eat when they are hungry by learning how and paying attention to your own hunger. Teach your child to cope with their emotions without using food by helping yourself (and them) find non-food ways to deal with feelings. Don’t talk about foods as “good” or “bad.” Talk about food from a standpoint of how the food makes your body feel.
- Offer a variety of options and aim for balance. Offer foods that provide a variety of different nutrients. Offer foods from a variety of textures. Offer foods from a variety of food groups. Keep in mind that the balance of each day doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s the balance over time that matters.
- Let your child take the lead. You provide the food. The child decides whether or not they’ll eat and how much they’ll eat. Trust your child. Most children, unless there are severe feeding problems, know when they need to eat and they know how much they need to eat. This does not mean let your child eat anything they want – remember, you provide the food! However, children are surprisingly good at intuitively knowing how much and when they should eat.
- Avoid restricting food. Restricting food on purpose with the hopes that your child will eat that food in moderation typically has the opposite effect. Restricting food can lead to binge eating that food, sneaking the food, overeating, and eating when not hungry. Imagine this – You don’t let your child have cookies. You don’t keep cookies in the house. When you are with them and cookies are around, you don’t let them have any cookies. You do this with the hopes that you are teaching them that cookies shouldn’t be eaten. What’s your child going to do when there are cookies around and you aren’t? Eat every single cookie in sight. A research review in the journal Pediatric Obesity (1) has found that restrictive practices with children and food can result in children who want those goodies even more and will eat more of the restricted foods when they are available.
- Ban the clean plate club. Being a member of the clean plate club teaches your child to ignore their internal hunger and fullness cues and teaches your child to overeat. Being a member of the clean plate club teaches your child to mindlessly eat because they don’t get to determine the stopping point since they have to eat until the plate is clean.
These are just a few strategies that you can use to raise a healthy eater. Utilizing some of these strategies to their fullest extent may mean that you have some things to work on with your own food relationship and that’s okay. You can do it and Friendly Nutrition can help with support and guidance if you need it. Being a parent is hard so let’s try to get to place of ease and happiness with food for your benefit and your kiddos benefit.
(1) Rollins, B. Y., Savage, J. S., Fisher, J. O., and Birch, L. L. (2016) Alternatives to restrictive feeding practices to promote self‐regulation in childhood: a developmental perspective. Pediatric Obesity, 11: 326–332. doi:10.1111/ijpo.12071.