Despite your best efforts, your kids may not be eating as well as you’d like them to. Many parents are concerned about what their kids eat (and don’t eat), and worry that their child is not getting the optimal nutrition to grow. Building healthy eating habits for your kids at an early age paves the way toward life-long vibrancy and health. But what is one to do if your child is a picky eater, or at least has picked up some less than desirable eating habits?
The good thing about eating habits is that they are just that – habits. And habits can be taught or changed. Here are some tips to help your child develop healthy – or at least, reasonably healthy — eating habits.
1. Start early.
As in very early.
Did you know that babies in the womb can actually taste the food mom eats? Research shows that what an expectant mother eats during pregnancy not only nourishes her baby in the womb, but also shapes food preferences later in life. Babies in utero swallow several ounces of amniotic fluid daily and with it, the flavor of the food and beverages the mother has eaten in the last few hours. Expectant moms who eat a healthy, diverse and varied diet give babies the advantage not only of excellent nutrition for fetal growth and development, but also for taste buds that are more tolerant of a wide array of food.
Similarly, babies who are breastfed tend to have a more adventurous palate when they start eating solid foods. The food a lactating mom eats can be tasted by baby through the breast milk. So if you want your baby to grow up with a taste for broccoli, carrots, and even ampalaya, be sure to load up on them and breastfeed your baby early on.
As soon as your baby is ready for solid food, feed your baby what the rest of the family is having, provided it is a healthy choice that does not have much preservative. For example, if your family is having tinola or nilaga for dinner, serve the same meal to your baby. Shred the meat, mash the vegetables, and thin it out with a little soup. Exposure to family food at the onset will help develop your child’s palate and make her more tolerant of trying out new foods.
2. Respect your child’s appetite – or lack of one.
It can be frustrating to see that your child has barely touched the food on his plate despite numerous prodding from your end for him to take just one more bite.
It is important that you don’t force your child to finish a meal or a snack. Forcing children to clean off their plate teaches them to rely on others to tell them when they are full or how much to eat. Likewise, don’t bribe or force your child to eat certain foods. Doing so will start a power struggle over food, and cause your child to associate mealtimes with anxiety and frustration. Instead, serve small portions to avoid overwhelming your child and give him the opportunity to ask for more, then offer praise when your child does ask for more.
3. Have regular meal times.
Try to serve meals and snacks at about the same times each day – usually 3 main meals and a snack in between. Having set mealtimes provides children with structure for the day and helps keep their energy levels moderate. It also helps you plan healthy snack and meal options in advance so you can lessen the occasions when you guiltily hand them a bag of chips for a quick snack or go for drive-thru for dinner.
4. Serve healthy food consistently.
It sounds obvious, but many families don’t consistently serve fruits, vegetables and other healthy food options with every meal. It’s important to serve them on every occasion, even if you think your child will not like them. The key is to expose them to a wide variety of healthy food choices. Be patient when introducing new foods. Serve new, unfamiliar foods along with your child’s favorites. Don’t be disheartened if your child does not love spinach or peas the first time you serve it to her, but insist on a “polite bite” or two. It may take several attempts before your child realizes that it’s not so bad after all.
5. Set a good example.
Kids often pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If your child sees you being an adventurous eater, and eating a variety of healthy foods, your child will do the same. Let your child see you enjoying mealtimes. Let her see you savor your food and comment positively on how the food tastes and how eating that particular food is good for you. Try out different cuisines together as a family. You child needs to see your openness to trying out, eating and enjoying different kinds of food.
6. Cook family meals.
Ideally, families should cook one healthy, balanced meal for the entire family – the kids eat what everyone else is eating. But sometimes, out of sheer frustration and desperation to get our kids to eat something, we succumb to feeding them what we know they will eat – chicken nuggets, pizza, fast food-bought fried chicken or even instant noodles – even if it’s not the healthiest option.
Preparing a separate meal for your child after he rejects the family meal can reinforce picky eating because there is no reason for him to try anything new. Your child will realize that he only needs to reject the family meal and you will prepare his favorite food.
If your child initially rejects the meal you served, encourage him to stay at the table for the duration of the meal even if he doesn’t eat. Keep serving healthy family meals until they become familiar and accepted.
7. Think about what you buy.
A really simple tip that can help curb eating unhealthy foods is to not keep any in the house. Avoid keeping junk foods like soda, chips, and sugary treats in the house and stock up instead on healthy food choices. Before heading out for the grocery, plan your purchases in advance and stick to your list. Don’t buy anything you don’t want your child to eat.
8. Minimize distractions
Some parents and caregivers resort to distracting or bribing children with TV or gadgets just get them to sit still long enough to finish a meal. While this may seem to work, it may have long-term negative effects. Allowing children to watch TV or play with gadgets while being fed will not only expose them to too much screen time (which has negative effects on its own), it will also make them dependent on such distractions to get through mealtimes. Imagine how your child will be able to get through recess or lunch at school where gadgets are generally not allowed. Because they are so focused on the screens, children may not able to listen to their body cues that tell them when they are full.
Turn off the television and other electronic gadgets during meals. This will help your child focus on eating. Make mealtimes a time for pleasant family interactions.
9. Limit snacking
Outside of the scheduled meal and snack times, your child should not be indulged with treats, especially sugary ones. Allowing your child to mindlessly fill up on juice or snacks throughout the day might cut your child’s appetite for meals. Uncontrolled and unlimited snacking also adds up on your child’s calorie intake without much gain in nutrition.
10. Get kids involved in cooking and meal preparation.
Ask your child to help you prepare the grocery list before you head out for grocery shopping. If possible, take your child to the market and introduce new fruits and vegetables to him. Ask him to select fruits, vegetables and other healthy food choices. At the grocery, have him pick out the items on your list. Encourage your child’s participation during meal preparation by letting him wash the vegetables, stir the batter or set the table. Making children involved in the process of preparing meals can help them claim a sense of ownership and pride, and be more willing to try out the meal they have helped create.
Remember that your child’s eating habits aren’t going to change overnight – but the small steps you take each day can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating.
What tips can you share that worked to get your kids to eat healthier?