How to establish healthy eating habits at all ages
Help kids learn to fuel their bodies with good food even when they're babies
All parents know their growing kids need good, healthy food to help fuel their bodies and minds, but getting children to eat good, healthy food can be a challenge itself. Here are some ideas for how to help kids of all ages understand the importance of what they eat and how to encourage a palette for many different types of food.
Wee ones [0-18 months]
Recommendations for feeding your baby are often confusing for new parents: breastmilk or formula? Rice cereal or straight to mashed food? Meat or no meat? Avoid common allergens as long as possible or introduce them early?
The CDC recommends waiting until a baby is 6 months old before introducing foods other than breastmilk or formula and to do so slowly. Make sure your child can sit up unassisted, has good control of their head and will move their head toward offered food on a spoon. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing one food at a time and waiting 3 to 5 days between each new food to make it easier to identify any allergic reactions or stomach upset caused by a food.
Most medical groups agree that there’s no reason to delay trying the eight major allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans) unless you have a family history of allergic reactions to one or more of these foods. If allergies are an issue in your family, talk to your pediatrician to determine how to proceed.
The AAP and other organizations say exposure to a variety of flavors and textures has been shown to increase the range of foods kids like as they grow. Some foods, like honey, unpasteurized drinks or food, and any fortified cow’s milk as these products pose significant risks to children, especially those under a year of age. They also recommend limiting foods with high sugar or salt contents.
Tots [18 months to 3 years]
Around 18 months is when the real fun with food begins with kids. They have a clear sense of what they like, they’re able to feed themselves and articulate what they want. This can also mean, though, the start of pickiness and the start of kids showing preferences for foods that aren’t in the best interest of their long-term health.
Offering a wide variety of foods in terms of colors, textures and food groups remains incredibly important in this age group. Ensuring the conversation in your home around food is based on judgment-free discussion of their value in our diets and avoiding power struggles over food are a big part of using this time in your child’s life to help them build healthy food habits and attitudes.
How do you talk about food?
How you discuss food in your home at this age can stay with your child, whether you’re talking about food as good, bad, gross or a treat. The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health) suggests talking about food as “go,” “slow” and “whoa” foods. Go foods we can eat any time. Slow foods we should eat less often. Whoa foods should be eaten sparingly. For example, a serving of fat-free yogurt can be eaten daily. Frozen yogurt is OK a few times a week. Ice cream, however, is best in moderation so it should be eaten less often.
Banning foods for being “unhealthy” or “bad” can lead kids to feel judgmental about themselves when they eat those foods, so the experts recommend instead discussing foods in terms of how often it’s best to eat them. Help kids understand this concept by watching Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster sing “A Cookie is a Sometimes Food.”
You can reinforce go foods by putting out a stash of healthy foods in baskets in the kitchen or an area of the fridge they can access. Make sure kids also have a way to get water easily throughout the day to teach them to use this beverage to stay hydrated without adding extra sugar or calories.
What to do with a picky eater
It’s very normal for kids to be picky about their food. Continue to offer a variety of foods and implement a one-bite rule asking your child to try each food offered. If they say they still don’t like the food after that bite, don’t force them to eat more. Toddlers have to try food as many as 10 times before they like them. Try mixing the food into something they do already like - broccoli on its own might not be appealing, but finely chopped broccoli inside macaroni and cheese can be more palatable.
Having one food your child will eat on the table each meal — even if it’s just bread — also helps head off power struggles. You do not need to make a second full meal for a picky kid, but consider having a simple meal they can have if they decline the main meal. Over time, most kids will grow out of this picky phase. If your child doesn’t, consult a pediatrician about potential sensory issues and to discuss healthy eating strategies for your child’s needs.
Preschoolers [3 to 5 years old]
They’re picky, they’re often bossy and let’s be real: difficult to deal with. But, that doesn’t mean getting feisty kiddos started on the right foot with healthy food is impossible. Here are some tips that may help in convincing your toddler to eat well. Good luck!
Presentation is everything
We can all agree, that if something doesn’t look appetizing we’re not quite jazzed up to give it a taste. For kids these ages, that certainly rings true. A haphazard plate full of vegetables. No thank you. A vegetable caterpillar? Yes please! To a preschooler, sitting down to eat is quite boring, which means it’s tough to get them to eat to begin with and even tougher to get them to try new foods. Presenting meals in a fun manner can go a long way in keeping your child focused on eating. Pinterest is a great resource for ideas, but if you’re short on time consider interactive plates, such as the Fred Dinner Winner plates that make eating a game.
Get them involved in the fun
Kids these ages thrive at helping out with the basics; measuring and pouring, stirring and even cracking eggs. Try to keep them involved in preparing their own food and get them even more excited by giving them their own special apron and chef’s hat! It all sets the stage for receptiveness come time to eat.
As parents we often sacrifice healthy food just to ensure we keep our little ones alive. No judgement, because it can be exhausting! When introducing new flavors or dishes to your child, consider offering other options, too, including those you know they’ll like. They’ll get to try a new food and you won’t have to worry about your little one going hungry.
Don’t give up
If you’re faced with a particularly picky eater, don’t give up. There are many ways to prepare and season foods so keep the trial and error coming. Eating is a multi-sensory experience for kiddos—sight, taste, smell—and as they’re changing and growing developmentally so do their perceptions. What may have been “inedible” one day, could be tasty later on.
Big kids [6 to 9 years old]
These years are a great time to get those busy little bodies more involved in the kitchen and educated about how the foods they eat impact their health. We all know setting a good example is part of the equation, but many times that doesn’t equate to excitement at the dinner table. Here are a few tips to spark and maintain their interest.
Let them help with the meal planning process. There are several great cookbooks geared toward kiddos, including “The Complete Baking Book For Young Chefs,” “The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs,” and “The Big Fun Kids Cookbook.” Look through these and websites and allow your child to pick recipes they want to try. Develop a weekly (or if you fly by the seat of your pants, daily) menu plan that your child can write out on a whiteboard or chalkboard.
Keep them involved
It may be scary to think of your child using knives and stirring hot food on the stove, but with supervision and the right tools they can take on more responsibility than you might think. Look for starter knife sets to help them safely learn proper cutting techniques. Kids can also help read recipes, measure ingredients and stir food. Keep in mind, most kids these ages aren’t at an ergonomic height for these activities, so using a stool will ensure they can see what they’re doing and that they can safely participate.
Let them create
The kitchen is a great place for creativity. Get the juices flowing with prompts, such as “how would you make a healthy ‘donut.’ If your kids are into pretend play you can also be the restaurant guest and they can be your server and cook. When they make some tasty creations give them their own blank notebook so they can jot down their tasty recipes.
Eat and talk
Eating together as a family is not only a great opportunity to connect and learn about each other’s day, it’s also a great time to talk about the food you’re eating. Discuss the health benefits of the foods you’ve prepared and why that’s important for their bodies and brains. Ask them what their thoughts were on the food and if they didn’t like it discuss new ways to prepare it such as broccoli stir fry instead of steamed broccoli. When we eat healthy we feel good and our bodies and brains can function at optimal capacity. If you want to dig into the details of specific vitamins and minerals kidshealth.org is a great resource.
Tweeners [10 to 12 years old]
At this age, it starts to become harder and harder to monitor what kids are putting in their mouths. They may be grabbing their own snacks and packing their own lunches now, so as they become a little more independent, it’s important that their habits harden the right way. These are formative years, for sure.
Finishing their plates
Just because many of us had parents who made us clean our plates, doesn’t mean we must carry this practice forward. It’s okay to let kids self-regulate their own hunger systems. If they’re full, why force more on them? If there’s dessert, you know they’ll already be consuming additional calories, so why insist they pile on more? It’s good to make them eat at least some of the actual meal, but there’s nothing wrong with dishing them up smaller portions and going from there. Unless they’re at risk of being malnourished and underweight, there’s no need to force more on them.
Learning the labels
Even adults can be tricked into buying “healthy” food based on misleading packaging. Teaching kids to read the label on packaged food can give them a better understanding of whether or not they’re actually making a good choice. Aspartame? Not good. Partially hydrogenated oil? It’s actually trans fat. Help them understand that the calories listed are “per serving” and are often not indicative of the entire thing. Make it a game of wits with your way-too-smart-to-be-fooled kids being able to detect what’s really going on there.
Make it about the benefit
Knowing what’s bad in foods is important, but knowing what’s good in them is even better. A vague, “Eat this because it’s good for you” statement isn’t going to get motivational juices flowing. Try this: “Did you know that the antioxidants found in blueberries are proven to help people remember things better? It’s literally brain food!” or “Did you know that if you eat these sweet potatoes, your body will turn them into Vitamin A, which helps make your hair healthy and grow faster?”
Set a good example
They’re looking at you, mom. If you want them to develop healthy eating habits, you’ve got to model them yourself. If you want them to love their bodies no matter what’s going on, then you can’t criticize yourself. If it makes you cringe to hear your child say, “I’m fat”, then realize how much it makes them cringe to hear you say the same thing. Teach your child what it means to love yourself inside and out, and that it’s as important to feed the heart and soul as it is to feed the body.
Teens [13 to 18 years old]
The teen years are among the most difficult to foster a healthy relationship with food. Teens are just getting used to their new, more grown up bodies when they’re bombarded with flawless, filtered and photoshopped media images of what they’re ‘supposed’ to look like. When they’re not gazing at images, they’re learning about the latest fad diets on social media. So how can moms and dads combat this?
Here are some tips from the Adolescent Health Center at Mount Sinai. Parents and teens should both follow these guidelines. Teens still see what you do more than hear what you say.
Shift your mindset
Think about your own relationship with food. Do you ever tell your teen “I feel guilty because I had an extra cookie at lunch.” or “I chose the burger instead of the salad, I’m so bad,”
It’s common. Many people associate food with stress, shame and guilt. But knock it off.
Food doesn’t have to be a constant source of stress. At its best, food fuels you and brings friends, families and even communities together.
Ditch the rules and expectations
Give yourself permission to eat. You need good, healthy food to survive. Try not to label foods as good or bad – this feeds into a diet mentality and can lead to anxiety or shame, over-exercising to burn off calories, or skipping meals. Try your best to eat fruits, vegetables and lean protein, but understand having a slice of cheesecake once in a while won’t kill you.
Mindful eating is all about tuning into your body and learning to find pleasure and joy in eating.
When you’re eating, be present with your body . Instead of rushing to finish or mindlessly watching TV, concentrate on your food’s smells, tastes and textures.
Learn your own fullness cues, then push away the fork. Package up the rest for another meal.
Learn your hunger cues. Eat when you’re hungry, even if it’s just a small snack. Your body will work more efficiently when you start to pay attention to real cues.
Simply put, give yourself a break. Next time you or your teen starts beating themselves up for a poor food choice, ask “Would I say this to my best friend if she ate too many French fries?” Most likely, the answer is “no.” Show some self compassion and understand you can’t be perfect all the time.