Teaching Kids Healthy Eating Habits
By Marina la Grange
Disclaimer: The medical and/or nutritional information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Before we had kids, it all looked simple enough. I mean, we’ve all seen those baby food ads, right? You feed them the stuff with an ‘airplane’ spoon and they gleefully devour every bite. Easy. Well, it feels like yesterday that I sat down with my oldest child to feed her her first solid food. I clearly remember those mommy feelings of excitement and pride at reaching this new milestone as I put the homemade, mashed sweet potato into her little mouth. Most experienced mommies would by now have guessed what happened next: as soon as the food touched her tongue, she shuddered with disgust, retched and promptly spit it unto her high chair’s tray.
It turned out the following diagram was a spot on description of how both my kids would behave around food versus non-food objects as babies (source):
For me, that was the start of a journey through the latest research on healthy eating. It turns out that teaching kids to have a healthy relationship with food is far from simple!
The World Health Organization states: “Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.” The obesity rate of kids in the USA is 17%, almost 1 in 5. Under adults, the rate increases to 38%, almost 2 in 5! (Source here.)
Clearly, if you raise your kids to eat the way ‘everyone else’ does, your child unfortunately has an excellent chance of growing up to be an obese or overweight adult. This would increase your child’s risk of developing a whole host of health problems during his or her lifetime, such as:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Insulin resistance
- Cardiovascular disease
- Sleep apnea
- Kidney disease
- Tooth decay and tooth loss
- Infertility (in both men and women)
- Certain cancers, including breast cancer, cancer of the colon and rectum, gall bladder and kidney cancer
- Weaker brain function (for more on this, see Obesity messes with the brain and Child's obesity and cognitive function linked.)
According to studies, Type 2 diabetes can shorten a person's life by as much as 15 years. Sadly, the quality of life during the final years of a diabetic person is often severely impacted by complications of this disease, such as heart disease, kidney disease, blindness and neurological problems due to strokes.
Type 2 diabetes used to be an almost unknown entity among teenagers, but this is unfortunately no longer the case.
If you can successfully teach your child to have a healthy relationship with food, specifically with healthy food, it will have a lifelong positive effect:
- The muscles, bones and organs (including the brain, lungs, heart, pancreas and digestive system) of a child who eats healthy food will develop optimally.
- A child who is used to healthy eating patterns is more likely to grow into an adult who will make healthy food choices. This will further decrease the individual’s lifetime risk of obesity and its associated health complications.
In an era with an unprecedented overabundance of unhealthy food, fruit juice and soft drinks, it is every parent's responsibility to educate their children on healthy eating habits. Nothing a parent does can guarantee his or her children a lifetime of good health. Teaching your child healthy eating and lifestyle habits is arguably as close as one could come to such a happy outcome.
Important factors to consider:
1. No normal, healthy child who has access to sufficient amounts of healthy food will die of hunger or suffer negative consequences from not eating
It is practical and sensible for a family to have set mealtimes, but eating three daily meals is a learned behavior. It may be difficult and even detrimental to force this habit onto small children.
Do not expect your child to eat during every meal. It is your responsibility to offer your child a variety of healthy food with different tastes, textures and colors at mealtimes. It is up to your child to decide which of the offered food to eat, as well as how much food to have (if any!). For a great article explaining this ‘division of responsibility in feeding’, read How to Raise a Healthy and Happy Eater: Follow a Division of Responsibility in Feeding.
If you have a fussy eater, you can offer at least one healthy option that your child is likely to eat, but then expect him or her to eat whatever you have prepared for the rest of the family.
This rule also applies to breakfast! Breakfast is often touted as “the most important meal of the day”. As far as I can tell, marketers and studies funded by food companies are a major source of this belief. It is hard to find convincing studies of high quality supporting this view. (Read Is Breakfast Overrated? and Skipping breakfast may be healthy way to shed weight for research articles questioning the importance of breakfast.)
Allow your child to wake up properly before expecting him or her to tuck into breakfast. Consider packing a healthy lunch box to school rather than trying to force-feed a fussy child breakfast first thing in the morning. This could make the morning routine a lot easier for everyone in the family!
Hunger and satiety are driven by a complex interaction between the body and the brain. Respect this mechanism! When parents or caregivers constantly force children to eat when they are not hungry, their hunger and satiety mechanism may cease to function properly. Consequently, these kids may become prone to overeating.
If you worry about your child being underweight, talk to your pediatrician or general practitioner about this. Do not simply try to force-feed your child more food, or even worse, unhealthy snacks. One study (conducted in Canada) found that 22% of parents who had kids (elementary school age) of a normal weight actually thought that their kids were underweight. Even more worryingly, 63% of overweight kids were considered to be “about the right weight” by their parents. (Source Are parents aware that their children are overweight or obese?)
If a doctor confirms that a child is failing to thrive, it is obviously crucial to investigate the problem. (This is an area where input from an experienced speech and language therapist, dietician or occupational therapist might be very valuable.)
2. No normal, healthy child who has access to sufficient amounts of water will die of thirst or become dehydrated
When a healthy child is thirsty, he/she will be willing to drink water. There is never enough reason from a nutritional point of view to offer a child soft drinks or fruit juice.
When a child refuses water, there is also no reason to try to force the child to drink water.
There is little (if any) actual research suggesting that the human body needs to be pumped full of eight glasses of water per day for optimal functioning, as is commonly believed. (For more on this, read Do you really need to drink eight cups of water a day?) It is rather profitable for marketers of energy drinks, fruit juices and bottled water to perpetuate this myth though.
3. Children's energy needs vary greatly over time
Children who are going through a growth spurt have an increased need for nutrients and calories. Do not be concerned if your child has an insatiable appetite at times! There is no need to tell a child that he or she cannot have a third or fourth serving of healthy food, with emphasis on the words ‘healthy food’ here. Growth spurts present a wonderful opportunity to introduce new foods and new tastes. As the saying goes, hunger is the best sauce!
Conversely, do not force a sick child with any of the common childhood ailments (such as colds, upset stomachs, tonsillitis, etc) to eat. The digestive process requires a lot of energy in the short term - energy that your child’s body might put to better use by fighting the infection. Offer a sick child nutritious food, but do not expect your child to eat until he feels hungry again.
If your child has been eating poorly for a few days or even weeks(!) but is otherwise normal and healthy, try not to worry. Do not offer a variety of unhealthy treats full of ‘empty calories’ to try and tempt a child with a poor appetite to eat.
If your child is overweight and constantly has an uncontrollable appetite, do discuss this with your doctor before ever considering putting your child on a ‘diet’ that could leave your child feeling hungry or unhappy.
4. Cut out soft drinks completely and cut down on fruit juice
Some studies have found that children who regularly drink fruit juice are of shorter stature than their peers who drink less fruit juice. Other studies have found that fruit juice consumption increases a child’s risk of being overweight.
One problem associated with drinking fruit juice is that it tends to suppress a child’s appetite. Fruit juice makes it possible for a child to fill up on sugar (mainly fructose) and calories, but it lacks the fiber and the full amount of the nutrients that would be present in natural fruit. The sugar in fruit juice will also be absorbed more quickly than the sugar in the natural fruit would have been absorbed, which has other negative implications for blood glucose levels and long-term satiety.
The sugar and acid in fruit juice also causes dental erosion and tooth decay. (See Warning to parents on high acidity drinks).
Offer your child water (and whole fruit) as opposed to fruit juice or soft drinks. See Fruit juice should not be part of your five a day for more on this recommendation.
5. Be realistic about portion sizes
The average two-year old weighs roughly 12 kilograms (26 pounds). An adult of 72 kilograms (159 pounds) therefore weighs about six times more than the average two-year old.
A common mistake made by parents and caregivers is to give a child small portions of food, but standard (adult) portion sizes of desserts or treats.
Here is a tip: whenever you give a child treats or sweets, imagine yourself having a portion that is similar in relation to your own weight. For example, if you weigh 159 pounds and you want to offer a two-year old a bag of chips or a cookie, imagine yourself eating six bags of chips or six cookies that very moment! Would you want dinner afterwards?
6. Don’t make your child feel guilty about food
Do not expect your child to eat out of gratitude or for reasons such as:
- “I spent hours slaving away in the kitchen to prepare this!” Ooh, I understand such feelings of frustration so well, I really do! But voice this frustration to a good friend rather than your child.
- “Groceries cost a fortune! You had better clean your plate...”
- “The world is full of hungry children and it would be ungrateful of you not to eat your food.” Why would it help any hungry kids anywhere if your child grows up to be a sick, miserable adult with unhealthy eating habits?
Your child should only be required to eat in order to fuel and nourish his little body and mind. It is not helpful to make a child feel guilty about the food that she eats, or does not eat.
7. Set a good example
Unlike kids, adults get to choose what food they want to buy, prepare and eat. Parents should set a good example by making wise food decisions.
Children are much more likely to follow their parents’ example than their parents’ advice! What could be better motivation for improving your life and eating habits than knowing that those little, bright eyes are watching you every day?
8. Children’s perception of taste differs to that of adults
Children are born preferring sweet tastes and they are more sensitive to bitter tastes than adults are. During middle to late adolescence, their taste perception normalizes to adult levels. As adults age, their senses tend to decline, including smell and taste. (Genetics also play a role in food preferences.)
Another big difference between adults and kids is that previous exposure to tastes has a huge influence on our food preferences. Kids are still in the process of shaping their food preferences.
Therefore, bear in mind that food tastes different to your child than it does to you. Add as little salt and condiments to your kids’ food as possible – none would be best! Do not be alarmed if you find their food bland, or even unpleasant. This will make sense to you if you have ever watched a baby relishing baby food consisting of something like pureed chicken without any salt added. Babies and tots can really delight in bland mush that would make many adults gag!
Conversely, if your child rejects something that you find delicious, bear in mind that it might simply be due to you and your child living in different worlds in terms of taste perception. Try not to view their rejection of food as an act of defiance or rebellion.
9. Avoid advertisements for unhealthy food
Be sensitive to the number of ads for junk food and unhealthy treats that your child sees. Avoid such ads whenever possible.
For this reason, we very seldom watch TV. I let my kids watch selected DVDs, downloaded video clips or play educational computer games during the limited amount of screen time that they are allowed (maximum of 2 hours per day, but the less the better). Alternatively, best of all, do music lessons with Mr. Rob on Preschool Prodigies during screen time! No inappropriate ads, yay!
10. Set realistic goals
Before I became a mom, I never realized how crushing the feelings of “mommy guilt” could be at times. Saying that my kids are important to me would be a major understatement and it really makes me want to ace this whole parenthood thing!
Trying to teach your kids healthy eating patterns can easily become another item on a long, merciless list of fails. Today’s kids are bombarded with sweets, unhealthy snacks, fruit juice and soft drinks on a daily basis. Parents face a multitude of challenges, such as kiddie parties, tuck shops, candy aisles at the supermarket checkout, friends with lunch boxes filled to the brim with cookies and well-meaning grandparents who love spoiling their beloved grandchildren.
To make matters worse, what could bring a mom or dad more joy than watching a little sweetie tuck into a bowl of ice cream or birthday cake, the grubby little face giddy with delight?!
It would be impossible and probably wrong to try to keep children from indulging in the delights and unhealthy treats that life offers (unless of course there are solid medical reasons, such as allergies or juvenile diabetes); however, try to leave it mainly to friends, grandparents and birthday parties to give your child exposure to the world of unhealthy food.
Those times that you do want to treat your child, be sure to make it a wonderful experience! Make it count. Invite some best friends over, then bake and decorate exquisite cookies. Make a special Valentine’s day dessert. Arrange a noisy and fun-filled birthday party with heaps of treats for the kids.
My husband and I occasionally make flapjacks, pancakes or Belgian waffles on cold, rainy days. This never fails to turn the kitchen into a sweet-smelling mess with sticky, happy kids ‘helping’ us cook and eagerly waiting for the next batch. We let them overindulge to their heart's content. This type of indulgence happens no more than maybe once a month, which keeps these occasions special and fun. We rarely have a traditional dessert after dinner, meaning literally that months may pass without us ever having anything other than fruit for dessert.
Don’t lose hope if your child ate sweets and cake all day after attending a friend’s party. You will most likely experience many more days in the future that are a complete fail in terms of your healthy food goals.
I personally strive to get my kids to eat healthy food at least 80% of the time during the course of a week. If I feed them healthy food at home and pack them healthy lunch boxes, we tend to achieve this goal. We are likely to miss the goal if the kids are invited to multiple parties in one week or if granny comes to visit, but then we’ll just try again next week.
When you feel like giving up, remind yourself of all the benefits that healthy eating habits will bring to your child, forget about yesterday’s failures and be sure to make a fresh start again tomorrow.
No parent wants his child to be bullied at school for being overweight. Teaching your child healthy eating habits will decrease his or her lifetime risk of suffering from obesity and its related health problems. Other factors (such as genetics) obviously also play a role, but remember that an overweight child with a healthy lifestyle will enjoy similar health benefits from his or her healthy lifestyle as would any other child.
The focus of teaching your child healthy eating habits should be to raise a healthy, happy child with a healthy relationship to food. If you can achieve this goal, then the weight of your child is of little importance.
Teaching a child healthy eating habits in our modern society requires a great deal of dedication, patience and effort; however, the proceeds of this investment in your child’s future will be priceless. Your child’s eating habits will have a tremendous impact on all aspects of his or her life, including:
- overall health
- mental health, self-esteem and risk for depression
- energy levels and vitality
- brainpower and academic achievement
- physical appearance
- life expectancy