Childhood is the best time to learn the healthy habits that can last a lifetime.
Healthy eating can help your child feel good, stay at or reach a healthy weight, and have lots of energy for school and play. In fact, healthy eating can help your whole family live better.
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How do you help your child learn healthy eating habits?
Share the responsibility. You decide when, where, and what the family eats. Your child chooses whether and how much to eat from the options you provide.
Young children are good at listening to their bodies. They eat when they're hungry. They stop when they're full. When we try to control how much children eat, we interfere with this natural ability. Keeping this division of responsibility helps your child stay in touch with those internal cues.
Help your children learn to eat slowly and recognize when they are full. Don't let rules, pleading, or bargaining dictate your child's eating patterns.
You can use some or all of the ideas below to get started. You may find other ideas that work for your family, and you can add those to these lists.
- Set up a regular snack and meal schedule. Most children do well with three meals and two or three snacks a day. When your child's body is used to a schedule, hunger and appetite are more regular. This helps your child feel more in tune with his or her body.
- Find at least one food from each food group that your child likes, and make sure it is readily available most of the time. Don't worry if your child likes only one vegetable or one or two kinds of meats or fruits. Kids tend to accept new foods gradually, and their preferences expand over time.
- Have your child eat a healthy breakfast. It helps your child stay at a healthy weight. Eating breakfast starts the process for using calories throughout the day. If you are in a hurry, try cereal with milk and fruit, nonfat or low-fat yogurt, or whole-grain toast.
- Eat as a family as often as possible. Keep family meals pleasant and positive.
- Don't buy junk food. Get healthy snacks that your child likes, and keep them within easy reach.
- Be a good role model. Your own eating and lifestyle choices are a powerful teaching tool. Your child sees the choices you make and follows your example.
- Serve modest portions. For example, children between the ages of 2 and 8 should have 2 to 3 ounces of meat or meat alternatives each day. Children between the ages of 9 and 18 should have 5 to 7 ounces of meat or meat alternatives each day. Remember that 3 ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of cards.
- Limit sweet drinks. Encourage your child to drink water when he or she is thirsty.
- Offer lots of vegetables and fruits every day. Children between the ages of 2 and 8 should have 1 to 1½ cups of vegetables and 1 to 1½ cups of fruits each day. Children between the ages of 9 and 18 should have 2 to 3 cups of vegetables and 1½ to 2 cups of fruits each day. That may seem like a lot, but it is not hard to reach this goal. For example, add some fruit to your child's morning cereal, and include carrot sticks in your child's lunch.
After a few days or weeks
- Offer new food. When trying a new food at a meal, be sure to include another food that your child already likes. Don't give up on offering new foods. Children may need many tries before they accept a new food.
- Don't say "Clean your plate." Try not to manage your child's eating with comments such as "Clean your plate" or "One more bite." Your child has the ability to tell when he or she is full. If your child ignores these internal signals, he or she will not be able to know when to stop eating.
- Make fast food an occasional event. Order the smallest portions available. Get your children in the habit of sharing one small order of french fries.
- Don't use food as a reward for success in school or sports. For example, don't use favorite foods as rewards for behaving well. And don't reward desired eating behavior (such as finishing a plate of food or trying a new food). If you serve dessert, consider it part of the meal, not a treat to follow the main course.
- Be a good example. If you don't want your child to eat less nutritious foods (for example, those that contain high amounts of fats or sugar), don't have them in the house. If you eat these foods but try to keep them away from your child, the child will learn to sneak these foods, beg for them, or view them as highly desirable.
Use knowledge to reinforce healthy eating habits
Help your children understand healthy eating by teaching them about food—where it comes from, how it grows, what nutrients it contains, and how many calories (how much energy) it has.
- Grow some of your own food in your backyard or in a pot on the back porch. Let your children have their own plants to take care of.
- Let your children start helping you cook as soon as they show interest. Teach them simple, healthy recipes.
- Let older children help you with shopping. Use it as a chance to teach them about food labels. Challenge them to find healthy foods by reading the labels.
- At the dinner table, point out the various food groups in the meal. Make a game of naming those food groups to teach children the importance of variety and nutritional requirements.