By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Harvard Health Blog
As a pediatrician, I talk about healthy eating a lot — and I talk to a lot of families whose children do not have the best eating habits. It’s not that the parents are bad parents. Many, many good parents have children who like potato chips more than Brussels sprouts — and it’s a natural instinct to want to give children food they like, and to feel worried when they don’t eat the food in front of them.
Eating habits are just that: habits. And habits can be not only taught, but changed.
Here are 10 ways to set your child up for a lifetime of healthy eating and all the health benefits that brings:
1. Start early. It is amazing how much the eating habits of babies and toddlers can end up lasting a lifetime — in both good and bad ways. A baby whose parents make him finish a bottle, for example, can lose his ability to listen to his own hunger cues (which is one of the reasons breastfeeding can help prevent obesity). A toddler who gets lots of fruits and vegetables on her plate comes to think of them as normal, yummy foods — as opposed to foods she is being forced to eat.
2. Serve healthy foods. This sounds obvious, but I talk to a whole lot of families who do not routinely serve fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods — or if they do, they leave them off their child’s plate (because the child “doesn’t like them”). It’s so important to serve them and keep them on the plate — and, I think, insist on at least a bite or two. It can take a bunch of tries before kids realize that broccoli isn’t so bad after all!
3. Don’t be a short-order cook. I talk to a lot of parents who serve one meal — and then make another one for their child (some make separate ones for separate children, or additional meals if the first one gets rejected). If you do that, there is simply no incentive to try anything new.
4. Set a schedule and stick to it. Once your child is eating meals (by the end of the first year), make a schedule of three healthy meals and two healthy snacks per day (one between breakfast and lunch, the other between lunch and dinner). If your child doesn’t eat what is served after about 20 minutes, take it away, and don’t feed them again until the next scheduled meal or snack. After a while, your child will figure out that if they don’t eat, they will be hungry.
5. Limit snacking. Outside of the established “OK” snacks, your child should not be hunting through the cabinet or refrigerator. If they are, they won’t have any appetite for meals.
6. Watch the drinks. Even a single cup of juice can cut a child’s appetite. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink.
7. Think about what you buy. If there isn’t junk food in the house, it’s a lot harder to eat it. Same goes for soda and sweets. Stock the house with healthy stuff instead.
8. Set an example. Kids always pay way more attention to what we do than what we say. If you don’t eat healthy foods, why should they?
9. Have family dinners. Not only is it the best way to set an example and help be sure that what they eat is good for them, family dinners are good for family relationships and for child development, and can help keep teens out of trouble.
10. Shop and cook together. If you can, grow food together too! Make healthy eating a fun, shared experience.
Every child and every family is different. Be sure to talk to your doctor if your child has any health problems — or, if despite your best efforts, your child’s diet is mostly chicken nuggets and french fries. Sometimes more creative approaches are needed, and we are here to help.
(Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a faculty editor at Harvard Health Publications.)