Eating well is one of those things that’s sometimes easier said than done. We all have a busy schedule; there’s no shortage of work at the office or at home. And juggling school, family or other activities can sometimes feel just exhausting. You want to encourage your kids to eat healthier despite being a busy family. But as we and our kids go through our busy days, healthy eating priorities may get lost in the mix of daily demands.
When you’re a busy parent with an active family it may seem like a major challenge to get dinner on the table every night. And sometimes it’s just not the healthiest option but at least it’s a meal, right?
The eating habits that your child forms when they are young will become a part of their lifelong habits, either setting them up for a future of good health or setting the stage for chronic conditions. No-one likes to think that their child could potentially develop serious conditions like obesity, asthma, or heart disease. The habits that we help instill in children early on will be crucial in determining their future outcomes.
If you have a concern about your child’s health and development, be sure to communicate with their healthcare provider.
By developing a healthy eating atmosphere at home, you are giving your child habits that they can rely on for life. So what are some ways that you can nurture healthy eating habits in your children?
4 Ways to Encourage Your Kids to Eat Healthier
1. Show rather than tell
While giving verbal instructions to your child is an obvious way to teach them, sometimes actions speak louder than words. One of the best ways to encourage your kids to eat healthier is to model healthy eating yourself.
Children learn quite a bit from vicarious observation. Whether it’s parents, teachers, or other role models, children will follow the lead of the adults they see every day.
Be sure to build a balanced plate when you sit down for a meal. By loading your own plate with an abundance of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, you are showing kids what healthy eating looks like.
Demonstrating these behaviors and choices as your child observes you on a day to day basis will send the message that healthy eating is something your family values.
Another way to be a good role model is to limit portions and not overeat. Talk about your feelings of fullness, especially with younger children. You might say, “This is delicious, but I’m full so I’m going to stop eating.” Similarly, be conscious about your comments on food and your appearance. For instance, parents who are always dieting, complaining about their bodies, or comparing themselves to “models” in the media may encourage these same negative feelings in their children.
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2. Eat Family Meals Together Regularly
Family meals are a time for everyone in the family to connect, comfort and learn from each other. Making this a part of your family’s regular routine benefits you and your child in many ways. As you probably learned when your child was an infant (and you were likely sleep-deprived), having a regular night-time routine was an effective strategy to get your child in the habit of sleeping through the night.
Kids enjoy and thrive in environments that offer predictability. And the predictability of a regular family mealtime provides the safe setting for everyone in the family household to catch up with one another and get “grounded” again.
One study found that children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits.
Kids who take part in regular family meals are also:
- more likely to eat fruits, vegetables, and grains
- less likely to eat unhealthy snacks
- less likely to smoke, use marijuana, or drink alcohol
Other ways to encourage regular family sit-down meals are:
- Get everyone involved in planning the menu to ensure there are meals everyone will enjoy.
- De-stress mealtime. Keep things judgment-free and casual. This is not the time to nag the kids about chores or homework.
- Invite guests for dinner, like your kids’ friends.
- Get started with meal preping to ensure that healthy meals are readily available and serving meals during busy weeknights is low stress.
Family meals don’t have to be elaborate, gourmet meals. The key is connecting. If you find that you’re exhausted or more stressed after prepping an elaborate meal, this goes against the whole objective of family dinners. So, keep it simple by planning family meals in advance. Set aside time to make mealtime a priority within your home and get the whole family excited about sitting down at the dinner table together.
3. Practice Portion Awareness
A portion is “the amount of food or drinks you choose to eat.” In the past few decades, the portion sizes of most typical American foods has grown exponentially. I’ll use the bagel as an example here. The average bagel now measures six inches as opposed to three inches 20 years ago. The actual serving size is only 2 inches, however. Another victim of portion growth is the hamburger. Today’s hamburger is more than twice the size of a hamburger 20 years ago. Beverages have gotten larger too, with the average soda can being 12 ozs vs 6.5 ozs 20 years ago.
And while our food portions have doubled and tripled, as humans our bodies still only require a fraction of those portions each day. But the tendency is still to consume the entire portion that is served to us. If it’s on our plate, we’re generally likely to eat it without a second thought.
It’s no surprise that with the expansion of portion sizes we are also seeing an expansion of our waistlines and an increase in health problems throughout the U.S.
Children are even more susceptible to these supersized portions as they may not even recognize that the meals they are served are actually twice or three times the amount they need.
Teach your child the difference between a portion and a serving. You can do this by:
- Making “matter-of-fact” comments about the size of portions when you’re out to eat.
- Cutting food in half or thirds and bagging up the leftovers for another meal.
- Placing emphasis on having a balanced plate at every meal.
- Ordering an extra side of vegetables at restaurants and eating more veggies with your meal, saving the remainder of the protein for another meal.
- Splitting dishes at restaurants. Order one entrée and share.
Help your child to recognize that the portions served are not always a reflection of an appropriate serving size and it’s okay to leave food uneaten if it is “too much” for one meal.
4. Emphasize Starting the Day with a Healthy Breakfast
You may have learned that kids come up with a variety of reasons why they don’t want to do certain things. And eating breakfast is no exception.
But you may be doing your child a disservice by allowing them to skip this important meal. Your morning time with your child is a not just about getting ready and out the door. Every morning you have a window of opportunity to model good eating and self-care behaviors for your child. Do this by prioritizing a healthy breakfast where you pack in nutrients into everyone’s diet before you’re all off to the races.
As you work to encourage your kids to eat healther, the focus should not only be on what you eat but also when you eat. There is much evidence that supports the old saying, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” When your fchild eats a healthy breakfast every morning, they are more likely to:
- Experience better overall health
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Have better energy level and academic performance
- And much more
These are all wins for their future health and well-being.
Quick Tips to Develop a Healthy Breakfast Routine
So, how can you set the stage for your child to eat a healthy breakfast each day? It all starts with you.
- Wake up 15-20 minutes earlier to put breakfast on the table and not feel so rushed.
- Make it easy to figure out what to have for breakfast by having healthy and easy breakfast options planned in advance. When you put together your meal plan for the week, be sure to include breakfast.
- Pre-slice or chop fruits in batches to toss on oatmeal or whole-grain cereal.
- Make a few days’ worth of breakfast ahead of time. Then portion into containers that can be quickly reheated. This could be several egg, cheese, and salsa tortillas or bowls of oatmeal.
- Buy a “main ingredient” like a turkey breast to incorporate into several breakfasts for the whole week such as turkey tortillas, turkey on pita bread, turkey and cheese on whole grain bread, etc.
- Redefine breakfast to make it work for you and your family. The key is to provide healthy foods that you and your kids will eat. Don’t be afraid to have lunch or dinner for breakfast.
Breakfast often gets overlooked because we are normally so rushed in the morning. From the moment we wake up oftentimes until we lay down at night, we are a non-stop culture. Plan out your breakfast routine and demonstrate healthy behaviors for your child by starting your day off with a healthy breakfast.
Other Tips to Encourage Your Kids to Eat Healthier
Every family is different and what works for some may not work for others. It’s all about experimenting while remaining consistent and setting a healthy example at home. Here are some other strategies to develop healthy eating habits:
- Avoid using food as an incentive or reward for good behavior or achievements.
- Be aware of what your child is eating away from home. For instance, know what snacks are given at daycare. Ask if your child’s teacher gives “treats” to students.
- Set a rule of no snacking in front of the television or computer to discourage “mindless” eating.
- Kids should not go on “diets.” This is a setup for eating disorders. Instead, encourage healthy lifestyle changes such as eating balanced meals and increasing physical activity.
- Grow a garden together. A family activity like this will help kids to see how food is grown. Their food doesn’t sprout on the grocery store shelf!
- Prepare meals together as a family. When kids are involved in preparing a meal, they’ll be more likely to eat it!
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Alicia Hyatte is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Family Wellness Advocate, Health Educator, and a Diabetes Prevention Lifestyle Coach. She helps parents to build healthier habits and routines to better balance home and work life. Her website, WholeFamilyLiving.com, provides motivation and simple strategies for handling everyday challenges like managing stress, being active, eating healthier, losing weight, and more. Alicia is a beach lover and gardening geek in her spare time.