All kids know how to eat. It’s up to you to teach them how to eat well. Parents ask all the time “how can I get my kids to develop good nutrition and healthy eating habits?” WHAT is good nutrition and what are healthy eating habits can be found on websites like Web MD (see below) HOW to get your kids to eat that way is the hard part. There is no perfect formula to achieve this goal. But using the relationship you have with your child will certainly be a useful tool.
I do not want to add stress to your life. While I encourage family meals and home cooking, I know that not all family situations allow for this. What I have to say are recommendations, not strict requirements.
There are 5 Teaching principles that I recommend
• Teach by relationship and social connection
• Teach by example and role modeling
• Teach for self-discovery and choice
• Teach with fun and pleasure
• Teach with confidence and what makes sense to you
These teaching principles will aid you in teaching good nutrition because they all take into account how children learn. This is part 1 of a 2 part series.
Eating well is about more than just the food you eat
• We are social creatures! Therefore it should be no surprise that social relationships play a large part in how children learn good nutrition and healthy eating habits.
• Food is an important way that humans connect with each other. Food is an important way that families express their love for one another. Food is an important part of our link to our cultural heritage.
Develop a tradition of the family meal
• Eating together as a family is the best way to cement the family bond. Kids learn to associate the natural pleasure of food with the people they are eating with…that means you! Kids learn good nutrition by eating with people who eat nutritiously.
• Taking the time to eat together contributes to good nutrition. It is a time to slow down and de-stress, which aids how well we absorb nutrients and aids feeling satisfied with our meal. Even busy working parents should try to at least find some time(s) when everyone in the family can eat together.
• Home cooked food tends to be more nutritious than store bought or restaurant food, so try to err on the side of a home cooked meal whenever it is possible. It may be something worth striving for. However don’t feel guilty if you can’t manage it. The stress of your guilt can counteract the benefits of good nutrition.
• It does not need to be elaborate or fancy. Simple easily prepared food is fine. What is important about family meal times is the ‘being together’ with people you love and care about; talking to each other; sharing ideas and stories; and eating and enjoying the food together.
• It need not be every day or overly long. A few times a week, even if it is only 30 minutes, or even 15 minutes can be enough time to make sure people feel that family connection. The point is kids feel they are important and connected to you, when you put in the time to sit and eat with them.
• When kids help to buy the food, prepare the meal, set the table and bring the food to the table, it can add to a sense of a family bond. It also provides great opportunities for talking with kids about what healthy eating means and how it can be achieved.
• Turn OFF all phones, gadgets and electronic devices during the meal.
The whole point of eating together is to have a time of connection. Kids may argue about with you when you won’t let them answer their phone. But deep down these kinds of family rules give kids a feeling of belonging and a feeling of pride about their family.
Children are better imitators than listeners
• Children are natural copy cats. Children learn more from imitating their parents’ actions than they do from what their parents say. Children will imitate how you eat, more than they will listen to what you tell them to eat.
• Therefore be a good role model. The first (and most powerful) lesson on good nutrition and good eating habits will be that YOU eat nutritious food and have healthy eating habits.
• But be a realist. Most of us don’t always eat healthy. The point is not to role model being a perfect eater. The point is to try and eat as healthy as possible and be accepting about the fact that all of us, parents and kids are going to sometimes want to enjoy a bit of ‘junk’ food. From a health perspective, unless you have a specific health problem that requires you to avoid certain foods, the occasional sweet treat or French fries is going to be OK.
• You will be more successful if you teach about eating in moderation, than trying to be abstinent from all refined sugar or high fat foods
Children learn better when they can explore and enjoy
• Children learn most from experiences where they get to explore and discover what they like. You will strengthen your teaching if you allow your child some variety and choice in what they eat.
• Give them some room for choice and trial and error learning so they can figure out what they like best.
• No need for an enormous selection at each meal. Just give them a few different healthy foods to pick from. For example provide two vegetables or fruits with dinner.
• Don’t force kids to eat what they do not want to eat. Teaching healthy eating involves making healthy food available but letting them also learn on their own what they enjoy eating. You have food preferences don’t you? There are textures or seasonings you prefer; vegetables and protein sources you prefer. So do your kids.
• All the nutrition does not have to get inside them at every meal or even every day. Nutrition is about the overall way they eat; over the course of several days or even a week.
Kids are kids and can get into odd eating rituals and patterns
• Kids like it when things are predictable; which is why routines work so well and why kids are not very flexible. As a result they can develop eating rituals, like how the food has to be placed on their plate or bread crusts cut off. Sometimes they get stuck in a rut, like only wanting to eat fruit or bread or pasta and not wanting to eat meat or chicken. It’s normal.
• Don’t make too big a fuss about these things, because kids also change day to day. Not only do preference shift, but if you give them the chance, an odd eating pattern may shift entirely on its own.
• Eating with them can be useful. Very often they will want to try something from your plate that they would have refused had you put it on their plate. Take advantage of that. Kids naturally want to do what you do. This can often help you open them up to new food choice.
• Don’t force kids to eat what they don’t want. It typically makes them more rigid and resistant to what you are teaching them.
• Learning to eat well takes a long time. Don’t get discouraged if your child’s eating eating habits aren’t great. Of course you want to get your kid off to a good start, but teaching your child to eat well is a lesson you will have to teach for many years over and over.
• Try not to get too preoccupied or anxious if your child is a fussy eater or does not like vegetables. Don’t panic. There will be foods that they do eat that can still provide them the nutrients they need.
• Concern about their eating patterns is a sign of love. Too much concern only adds extra stress to both of you; and that won’t help improve your child’s eating. It might even make it worse, since many of us overeat when we feel tense.
Teaching nutrition without preaching nutrition
• Tell them you teach them what’s healthy to eat because you love and care about them and want them to grow up healthy.
• Listen to their thoughts and ideas about nutrition and healthy eating. Engaging kids in process of learning good nutrition involves getting their opinions as well as giving yours.
• Natural conversations about nutrition that fit the situation and asks the child for their thoughts and input are more effective than a monologue or lecture.
Don’t forget the pleasure of eating
• Food is more satisfying and we we are better at regulating our food intake when we enjoy our food.
• There is some evidence that we absorb the nutrients in food better when we enjoy the food.
• Ways to bring pleasure into the experience. Think of and talk about ways that healthy food can also taste really good. See what your child enjoys and try to include that as much as possible. Talk about enjoying and savoring food. Find out what ideas your child has about what is tasty and fun to eat.
• There is also the pleasure of eating meals with other people and the pleasure of special occasions celebrated around food with other people.
• Too often these days people get so scientific and correct about good nutrition that it can robs us of the pleasure of our food.
Side benefits of eating together
• Eating together is also a great time to learn about conversation skills, like listening to others and respecting what others are talking about.
• Sibling rivalry frequently occurs at meal times, because kids naturally compete for their parents’ attention. But learning how to take turns at conversation in this setting will prepare your child better for future social settings.
Remember no one is perfect! So don’t even try! If cooking at home, or trying to get everyone to sit down together adds way too much stress for you, it is not worth it. Stress interferes with metabolism and the absorption of nutrients. All you can do is try your best. If you only can do it once a week perhaps than that will be fine.
I offer the idea of the family meal because it is good for you, not just because it is good for kids. For one thing children who have enjoyed family meals when they are young are more likely to return home to visit and want to eat together when they are grown. And let’s be honest, that’s what most parents want in the long.
A good site for more details about healthy nutrition and eating habits for kids: http://www.webmd.com/children/guide/kids-healthy-eating-habits#1