Posted on July 21 2021
In this day and age where kids are surrounded by fizzy drinks and fast food, instilling the importance of healthy food choices and eating clean and green is ever more a challenge. Fostering healthy eating habits begins from childhood and teaching our kids such positive behaviours will set them up for life. Planning healthy meals, letting them partake in meal preps as well as role modelling balanced eating all help kids develop a positive outlook on eating well. Don’t forget, monkey-see, monkey-do and your actions speak louder than words. Even the tiniest of tots watch, listen, learn, and then simply mimic what they see. The benefits of eating well go beyond just maintaining a healthy weight. Jaclyn Reutens, a dietician at Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants, states that “children think better, are more attentive, alert and feel better” and “you will see improvements in emotional and mental well-being.” Here are some ways you can cultivate healthy eating habits in your kids and set them up throughout adulthood.
Plan regular meals and snacks
When it’s time to eat, it’s time to eat, and kids, as far as we know it, thrive on routines. Scheduling regular meals sounds like something that most of us would do, but what about snacks? Continuous snacking may end up in overeating so snack times should be planned too! By having specific snack times, you can ensure that your child’s appetite is not spoilt at meal times. Plus, you can also dish out snacks that are as nutritious as possible. That being said, you needn’t deprive your kids of the occasional chips or cookies. The key word here is “occasional” and everything in moderation. Having healthy snacks within reach and at your children’s eye level helps too.
Emphasise that breakfast is important
Have late risers at home? That doesn’t mean that breakfast should be conveniently skipped! Start your kids’ day off right by having breakfast as it helps to kickstart their metabolism that aids in the absorption of nutrients. Having a nutritious breakfast also aids in concentration and fuels your child’s energy levels. It is also linked to having better eating habits (like less snacking) throughout the day.
Go grocery shopping together
Getting your kids routinely involved with grocery shopping, pushing the trolley, picking out the items from your list as well as checking them off your list all help with fostering positive eating habits in kids. Of course, it also depends on the type of items you have on your list too! As your child picks out the items, you can even spark off conversations with them about the nutritional value of specific foods. How about reading off the labels of cereal boxes? They can also learn a thing or two about calories, sugar levels and more.
Yes, there will be mess in the kitchen, but allowing your kids to help you cook actually minimises resistance to trying out new food.
Let your kids help you cook
The fear of our kids making a mess in the kitchen is real and while most of us would love having all our kids in the kitchen helping us to prep meals, the thought of cleaning up after them is always a deterrent. However, if we want to cultivate healthy eating habits, we have to bring them into the kitchen; kids love to eat what they’ve chosen and helped to prepare. You can start by searching online for some fun children’s recipes and let them choose what to make (start with a healthy snack!). You can freeze bananas, strawberries, blueberries and blend with yogurt for a fruit smoothie. Thereafter, they can help you with the real stuff – prepping lunch or dinner. Similarly here, you can have conversations with your kids about the ingredients that go into a particular dish, its nutritional value and a whole lot more.
Set the example
You can plan your meals, shop for groceries and cook together, but most importantly, you must set the example and be a role model of healthy eating for your kids. You can only teach your kids healthy eating if you know what eating healthily means – more fruits and vegetables, less oily and fried foods. Even if it’s fried food day, couple the dish with veggies and fruits. Don’t mention things like dieting, weight gain, weight loss or comment on the amount of food that you or anyone else eats. If you want your kids to be adventurous eaters, then you’ve got to be adventurous too and challenge them to explore different foods together. Little ones especially love to copy what you do and this includes your meal preferences and willingness to try new foods. Use this to your advantage and choose healthy food options right in front of them. Eat healthy snacks like fruits and nuts. Even if certain foods are not to your liking, don’t make a face in front of the kids – remember, they are watching you even if you don’t know it!
Don't focus on the amount of food your child eats
“Finish your food, don’t waste it!” Sounds familiar? More often than not, most of us will instil this in our children and sometimes the situation around the table gets tense when one child doesn’t finish his food. However, if we want to foster a healthy eating habit from young, we also need to keep a positive environment around eating and food. Your child may polish off every little bit on their plate one day, then eat two strands of noodles and say they are full the next. Exasperated as we might be, this shouldn’t come as a surprise as sometimes, we ourselves have “off-days” and our appetite isn’t its usual self. Our appetites vary daily and this is also true when kids go through growth spurts or slower growth. If the amount of food waste is increasing especially with your picky eaters, start them off with smaller portions and tell them they can always ask for more.
Encourage your children to eat slowly
Subconsciously, we are always rushing our kids to speed up and finish their meal, but it has been said that children (and us too!) can detect hunger and fullness better when they eat slowly. Gobbling up food is never a good option and going for second or third helpings without waiting for the brain to register fullness is not either. Eating slowly helps digestion better and it also prevents unnecessary overeating.
Slow and steady. Allow little ones to take time to digest their food and also allow their brain to figure out when they are full.
Cook more meals at home
A homecooked meal is always the best and it has a huge impact on your children’s health. Eating out or ordering in sounds fabulous at the end of a hectic work day, but we all know that these dishes will have more added salt, sugar, and unhealthy fat that’ll take a toll on our health in the long run, so even cooking a super simple meal at home is still the best option. At home, you can substitute with healthier condiments, use less oil, and add more veggies. You can even be innovative and find ways to “hide” or add more greens into a specific dish without your “adverse to green” kids even knowing!
Plant a garden
If you’ve got kids who gag at the sight of veggies, perhaps gardening might help to soften their reaction towards greens. You don’t need a huge garden to start off your gardening journey. With smart systems like Click and Grow, you can grow fresh fruits, veggies, and herbs right at home without compromising on space! Kiddos will love the novelty of such an aesthetically-pleasing and fuss-free garden. There are also so many gardening kits in the market like those from Super Farmers and Everything Green. The accomplishment that kids feel in growing these veggies is highly motivating and home-grown crops almost always taste better!
An occasional taste of a sweet or salty “junk” food goes a long way to lessen the temptation to crave for more in the long run.
Don’t be too quick to ban “junk” food
“Junk” food, fast food, processed food are everywhere and even if you were to ban them at home, your kids will somehow have access to them. Once they get their first taste of super flavourful, sweet, and salty foods, it’s tough to unhook them. Rather than banning them entirely, limit the amount of such foods your kids can have each day or week. In this way, they won’t be so tempted to find ways and means to seek them out since they can’t have access to them at home
Encourage them to eat healthily in school
Pre-schoolers and kindergarteners will not be affected by this, but school-going kids are presented food choices everyday during recess or lunch. Discuss with your kids on what foods are available in school and encourage them to make nutritious food decisions. You can also give them healthy fruit snacks to bring to school to supplement their main meal and encourage them to save up their pocket money instead of spending on sugary or salty treats.
Eat together as a family as often as possible
Eating together enhances family bonding and creates a pleasant environment to spark off conversations and sharing. It’s not a time for reprimanding or arguing as such a negative environment makes kids want to eat faster and leave the table as quickly as possible. Furthermore, younger ones might learn to associate meal times with stress which then creates a negative connotation to eating as a whole. This might even end up with an unhealthy eating habit instead – eat fast and not eat right.
Discourage eating meals or snacks while watching television
Designating eating to the dining table or kitchen makes a whole lot of difference when cultivating a healthy eating habit in kids. Little ones learn fast and soon they’ll learn that eating is only allowed at these places, at these times. Discourage eating in front of the television or even an iPad because they are a form of distraction and knowing kids, they’ll eat and eat just because they want to watch and watch. This is undesirable and it may lead to overeating. What’s more, eating in front of the telly depicts an anti-social behaviour and there’ll be no chance to bond and converse as a family.
Your little one still cringing at the sight of green? Don’t give up! Try and try again.
Try not to use food to punish or reward your kids
It might be tempting to use food to punish or reward our kids especially when you are faced with a picky, stubborn eater who would simply not budge and eat his veggies. Telling him that he’ll get dessert once all his veggies are finished sends a wrong message entirely about the veggies. It indicates that vegetables are unimportant and should just be eaten quickly because the all-important dessert is waiting. Similarly, punishing them by withholding food might lead to them worrying about not having enough food. Thus, they’ll end up eating irregularly because of this fear.
Present new foods again, and again, and again
As with babies, tots, and even teens, always present new foods or old-new foods over and over again. Don’t give up or give in to tots who are just so persistent and refuse to eat their greens. Offer the new food many times and in many different forms, across different dishes. You can help a picky eater or rebellious teen to feel more in control of their food options by presenting them with choices at meal times. For example, ask, “Would you like cucumbers or spinach with your dinner tonight?” as opposed to “Do you want cucumbers with your dinner tonight?”. He/she might feel less resistant and more willing to actually eat what they have chosen.
Leading a healthy lifestyle, heading outdoors, and exercising all go hand-in-hand with fostering a healthy eating habit in your kids. Encourage your kids to take up activities that they are interested in or better yet, join them in a weekly activity as a family. Even a family walk after dinner makes a whole lot of difference. Once you kick-off this habit when they are younger, chances are they'll practice it as they get older too. Same goes for healthy eating - start them off young and set them up for life.
Relevant Reads: 9 Ways to Get Your Toddler To Eat Vegetables