How do you help your kid develop good eating habits? Chances are, a healthy child has a good relationship with food. There’s so much you can do (or not do) to make sure your kid develops good eating habits and the right frame of mind around food. Here, dietitian Yan Yin from The Thoughtful Dietitian shares five simple ways you can help your little ones develop good eating habits.
No distractions at meal times
A scientific review found that eating meals in the presence of distractions such as the television, radio, or books lead to an increase not just in immediate food intake, but also the amount of snacks or lunch taken two hours later.
When you’re distracted while you eat, you’re not eating mindfully – this calls for focus in the present moment so you can be aware of your feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations as you eat.
These are good habits to encourage in young children as it helps them stay in tune with how their bodies feel as they eat and help them develop good eating habits. This way, they regulate their food intake better and tend not to overeat, which goes a long way in preventing obesity in adulthood.
At the same time, when kids are not distracted by electronics at meal times, it creates opportunities for family bonding. Mealtimes give you an hour or two in the day where you get to find out about your child’s day, or inculcate valuable lessons. In the years to come, they’ll look back at those moments as fond memories.
Parents provide, children decide
Did you know that young children are naturally able to self-regulate their hunger levels and decide how much they need to eat before feeling full? Your role as a parent is to provide your kid with a variety of foods from all the food groups, with a range of tastes and textures.
Don’t bother to plan a special menu for them. Instead, kids should be offered the same foods as the family, except in smaller portions or softer consistencies, if necessary.
The fact is, children will never go hungry. All you have to do is decide what they should eat, and when. Your kid will decide whether or not to eat it, and how much is eaten.
Often, certain foods may go untouched if you have a picky eater. But this is part of them learning what it’s like to be independent and say no. Sometimes, it takes offering a particular food up to 20 times before they finally accept it. Simply continue to encourage your young one and lead by example. Over time, they just might say yes to it.
Letting children decide how much they want to eat is important in developing good eating habits. By giving them autonomy, they eat when they’re hungry and learn how much they need to stay full. It is when we insist that they finish a meal they can’t that their body starts losing sense of where their limit lies. Over time, this leads to weight gain and obesity in adulthood.
Lead by example
When you exhibit good eating behaviours and habits, your little one will naturally follow in your footsteps.
A scientific review found that being a good role model involves eating healthily in front of your child, displaying enjoyment when doing so, and highlighting the benefits of healthy eating. Also, having a good parent-child relationship improves the effectiveness of role-modelling.
So, if you have the habit of eating a fruit before dinner, it’s likely that your child will pick it up too. On the other hand, if you gobble meals down, or always leave onions behind on your plate, your child will probably follow in your footsteps.
Think about the kinds of food habits you’d like your child to have, and compare them with the messages you are sending with your behaviour. Being a good role model is one of the best ways you can set your child up with good eating habits, so they live in good health in the years to come.
Do not over-restrict what kids eat
Research has shown that restricting children’s food intake will cause them to eat even more of the food. This is especially so in children who find food especially appetising, have lower inhibitory control, a more excitable temperament, or those who have previously experienced similar restriction by their parents.
It is tempting to give them eliminate all “junk food” from their diet. However, meaningful attempts to improve your child’s health may backfire when they feel deprived. Furthermore, there are all kinds of food that are easily accessible to them out there. From school canteens to fast food joints, or even when visiting a friends’ house! It would be futile to attempt to keep your child from all the tasty goodies they are sure to encounter in life.
Instead, what you can do is expose your child to all foods, but to educate them about “everyday foods” and “occasional foods”.
“Everyday foods” are foods that we require every single day for health, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy or vegetarian alternatives.
On the other hand, “occasional foods” are foods that we do not need in our lives, but that we consume occasionally for joy, as a treat. These would include foods like chocolate, sweets, cakes, desserts, and chips. When kids learn to have a good mix of foods in a balanced manner from a young age, they develop a healthy relationship with food that is not burdened by worry, shame, or guilt. That goes a long way in helping your little ones develop good eating habits.
Use positive and appropriate words to describe food
Education is empowerment. But when speaking to children, it may be difficult to explain how some foods are good for health, while others are not so. Always use simple words with a positive spin to describe healthy foods so kids have a better understanding of what you mean.
For example, instead of saying “Eat more vegetables or you can forget about watching TV”, try “Eating vegetables help you stay strong and not fall sick, so you have more time to play!”
At the same time, if your child wanted potato chips, instead of simply instructing “Just eat 5, don’t let me see you eat more than that!” Say, “Here’s 5 pieces for you, eat each piece slowly and enjoy them alright?”
Also, be careful about the types of words you use to describe the foods you eat. Talking about how junk food is “fattening” puts a negative spin to it and makes children draw the link between food and body image. This could lead to a whole host of body image issues and insecurities about looks. Truth is, junk food does nothing to your waistline if eaten in small amounts as part of a balanced diet!
How your child regards food, what they like or dislike, and what they eat every day now, and in the future, stems from how food and mealtimes is portrayed to them at a young age. With these 5 simple rules, you can influence your child’s diet and long-term health. It takes time and effort, but it will pay off.