Helping children to establish healthy eating habits

I’ve been recently been noticing a lot of things that my husband and I say or do around mealtimes with our kids, or things that my children say or do.   These have been both positive and negative.  I’ll happily admit that my children are not the perfect eaters – they don’t eat large quantities of vegetables, the types of vegetables that they will eat are not that varied and my youngest often refuses to even try them.  On the plus side, they really enjoy their food, they have good appetites, my eldest will try everything and they eat exactly the same food as us (except we have more veg and if I’m cooking a really spicy curry then I tend to save that for a night when we’re not eating with the kids).  They also sit at the table until they are finished although my youngest does have to be told to not stand up on his chair quite a few times and man is he messy!  I know I’m not biased, as other people who care for them and friends will often comment on how good they are about eating.  

So, here I am going to address 3 questions…1) why do I think encouraging good eating habits is important 2) What can you do to help your kids? 3) When can you relax and not feel judged by your kids eating habits?

Answers!

1) I think it is important to encourage good eating habits from the word go (i.e. weaning) in order to set the basis for a varied and healthy diet in the future.  Most of us know that eating a varied diet including a variety of carbohydrates, protein, fruit and vegetables and some fats is essential for a healthy life and establishing these habits early on will help the child grow and develop as well as have a life long effect.  But it’s not just the nutrients that are important.  It is also important to teach our children to have a healthy relationship with food in order that they don’t use it as a tool to cope with different emotions, develop extreme ideas about dieting and at it’s worse develop disordered eating (obsessive behaviours around food that affects their mental health).

2) Here are some of the things that you can do to help your children establish a healthy relationship with food:

  • Lead by example.  That means eating with your children as many times a week as possible and at as many meals as possible (even if you just start with breakfast).  Establish a routine around mealtimes, so that everyone eats at the same time and the same meal.  We tend to cook extra vegetables that we can add to our meal and then give the children just a few of these to try.  Not piling their plate with things they aren’t so keen on helps them feel more comfortable to try it, knowing they aren’t expected to eat a mound of it.

  • Cook one meal.  Personally the thought of cooking 2 or more meals every evening makes my heart sink.  If it does yours, then don’t do it!  One meal can be adapted slightly e.g. different side dishes in order that there is at least one element you know your child likes.  Children need to learn that they can’t eat their favourite meals every day of the week, as I said variety is key.  They are more likely to be exposed to different foods and flavours if you don’t give them a choice and serve whatever you’d normally be eating. 

  • If they don’t eat it, don’t stress!   If they were really hungry they would eat it.  This stands true for most children, perhaps with the exception of those with a diagnosed medical condition or behavioural problems.  As long as they’ve eaten something that day, are drinking plenty and they are growing and developing well then there is no need to worry.   Don’t offer another option because they’ll soon learn that if they say no enough times they’ll be offered something they like more. My two don’t tend to wake early if they go to bed without dinner, which goes to show they probably just weren’t hungry even though they were saying, “I don’t like it”!

  • Don’t rise to “I don’t like it”.  How disheartening is it when you’ve taken the time to cook a lovely meal and the kids immediately turn their noses up?  Don’t let it rattle you.  I often find that if I explain to them that there is nothing else and don’t pay them any attention that they suddenly just start eating.

  • Let them have more freedom and choice at breakfast, lunch and snack time.  These meals are easier to prepare slightly different things for, so offering two or three choices at these meals allows the child to express their free will and eat for enjoyment as well as for nourishment.  Make the choices healthy options the majority of the time, but include foods you know your children really enjoy so that they don’t feel deprived or like they have no control.  For example, my two love brioche, croissants, Petit Filous and malt loaf.  None of these foods I want the kids eating on a daily basis, but nor are they poison, so I am happy to offer them occasionally. This will help them to learn not to label foods as good and bad and to not value certain foods above others.

  • Let them eat cake!  Yes you heard me J How many of you have secretly been scoffing biscuits or cake in the kitchen as quickly as possible before the kids find you?  I know I certainly did it when the kids were tiny.  Now they are past their first foods however, if I fancy cake I’ll make it an activity with the kids.  We’ll either bake it together at home or go to a café (often after a bike ride).  This way I get to eat it at my leisure and the kids learn that these are not a forbidden food to be eaten in secret and lusted after until the next birthday party.  We don’t bake cake that often, so these are not everyday foods.

  • Following on from this…Try not to offer food as a reward or take it away as a punishment.  I know it works and is really tempting, but try to limit the amount you do this at least.  Try to find another way.  Remember to praise them whenever they do something good, but teach them that they don’t need physical reward for every bit of good behaviour.  Use stickers, reward charts, a trip to the swimming pool or the local farm park as rewards and hugs.  If they’ve behaved badly take away TV or their favourite club for the week or threaten them with Santa not coming, anything other than “well you can’t have pudding”.  Pudding will suddenly become even more special than beans on toast!

  • Eat to appetite.  Serve your child a small portion and then allow them to have seconds if they are still hungry, this way they will not get overwhelmed and there will be less waste.  If I am serving my children something I know they always eat e.g. their breakfast cereal, I will often say “you don’t have to finish it if you don’t want it all” so they learn to stop when they are full and do not think they will be punished for not finishing.

3) It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it?  And it is, but that’s kids for you!  Establishing healthy eating habits takes patience, perseverance and a lot of willpower (more than a toddlers!).   Things it shouldn’t involve are feelings of guilt, self-neglect (e.g. not eating yourself) and feeling inadequate.  The important questions to ask yourself when you are battling against your child at mealtimes are: Is your child growing well? Does your child know they are loved through other means other than food?  If the answer is yes to both then take a deep breath and relax.  Let them leave their fish and move straight onto dessert (a healthy bowl of fruit and yoghurt of course J).  Just make sure they see you eating yours.   It’s also ok to give them an easy dinner when you’ve had a busy day, it’s ok for your child to eat something one day and not on another and it’s ok if they only want marmite in their sandwiches every day.  As long as you continue to set a good example to your child and put the emphasis on good physical and mental health and not on their size or behaviour then your child will (eventually) eat like you do. 

If the list above currently feels unobtainable choose one and try it for a week or two and slowly change yours and your child’s habits for the better.

A few facts:

  • Children have an innate ability to know when they are hungry and when they are full.  Don’t try to control their appetite for them e.g. “you must finish your plate”, otherwise they can lose touch with this ability.

  • Don’t forget the importance of teaching your kids to lead an active life.

  • Look at your child’s intake over the week and ask yourself is it balanced?  It doesn’t matter if on some days they eat more of one thing than another as long as over the course of the week they are eating a variety.

  • Involve children in shopping and cooking so that they learn the skills needed to eat well.

  • It can take 15 exposures or more to a new food before a child will accept it. Don’t give up.