Healthy eating can be tough, no doubt about it. Getting your kids to eat healthy can be even tougher. How do you convince toddlers to eat their vegetables when that fun, sugary cereal tastes so good? Like most things, it starts with a bit of learning on everyone’s part, particularly parents who sometimes are reluctant to follow the very advice they’re trying to give to their children. If kids see their parents frequently eating junk food, it tends to make it more acceptable. But that works the other way, too. If they see you eating more fruits and vegetables, they’ll be more inclined to adapt and follow suit. Part of the trick is making healthy eating “fun” for everyone.
“You want to begin by focusing on eating meals together as a family as much as possible,” said Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman. “Doing so helps you be in control of the menu at all times, meaning you can leave off the fried foods and increase the amount of fruits and vegetables available at meals. It also allows you to manage portion sizes, which can be important for helping your kids maintain a healthy weight. Also, studies have shown that kids who regularly eat meals as a family have lower rates of eating disorders and depression, as well as a reduced risk for drinking, smoking and drug use in their teenage years,” Tillman said.
Tillman says the next step comes back to the idea of practicing what you preach. “If you want your kids to form better eating habits, one surefire way to encourage them is to form better eating habits yourself,” she said. “Try to focus on eating balanced meals and snacks, and purposely plan what foods will be available in the fridge or pantry. Kids may be responsible for whether they choose to eat and how much they choose to eat, but parents control the what, where and when of meals,” she explained. “When it comes to treats, remember to avoid making them feel ‘forbidden’ because that tends to only make kids want them more. Instead, make treats less of a big deal by having them around sometimes, but really focusing on real, nourishing foods at meals and snack times,” she added.
“We all should really be trying to adhere to the 90/10 rule,” Tillman said. “This means 90 percent nourishing foods and 10 percent ‘fun foods.’ On the nourishing side, you have fruits, veggies, low-fat dairy foods and whole grains, plus lean proteins found in meat, beans, fish and poultry. Healthy fats found in nuts, seeds and olives are important, as well. For kids, fruit and vegetable juices, higher-fat meats, refined grains and full-fat dairy foods should be offered less often, ideally daily or even weekly. Sweets, chips and fried foods which typically make up the ‘fun foods’ category, should only be offered about 10 percent of the time,” she explained.
The structure of kids’ meals also is crucial to helping them become healthier eaters. “You want to aim for meals and snacks in three- or four-hour intervals,” Tillman said. “It also can be beneficial to set a main location for eating, whether it’s the kitchen or the dining room table. These types of boundaries help keep things under control. But, we don’t want to focus too much on the word ‘control.’ You want to avoid putting too much pressure on your child to eat certain foods, but you also don’t want to get stuck rewarding them for eating healthy foods or bribing them to do so. It’s a balancing act, but the goal is to be not too permissive, but not too authoritarian,” she explained.
Tillman adds parents also should, as a general rule, avoid focusing on weight. “The goal should be to really emphasize the development of healthy eating patterns and habits,” she said. “Focus on positive messages around food and activity, not negative ones. For instance, don’t stress ‘exercising’ as much as simply being more active in fun ways, such as riding bikes together, hiking, playing ball or taking walks as a family. Just try to make movement a fun part of everyday life,” she explained.