5 Strategies to Foster Healthy Eating Habits in Children

As a parent, you have the power to shape your child's eating habits and set the foundation for a lifetime of healthy choices. But how can you effectively influence their relationship with food?

WHY THIS MATTERS

Understanding and implementing supportive food parenting practices can significantly impact your child's health, behavior, and overall well-being.

INTRODUCTION

I am often asked, "What is the best thing I can do to help my kids become healthy eaters?" The truth is, there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer because our eating habits are shaped by a variety of internal and external factors. However, there are several proven strategies that can make a significant difference.

Today, I want to share five key actions you can take *at home* to support your children becoming healthy eaters.

5 TIPS FOR YOUR HOME

1. Make Healthy Foods Accessible and Available

It's crucial to understand the difference between making foods available and accessible. Availability means having healthy options like fruits and vegetables in your home, while accessibility means ensuring these foods are within easy reach for your kids. A systematic review found that both availability and accessibility of healthy foods are linked to higher consumption of fruits and vegetables among children and adults1.

Practical Tips

  • Keep fruits and vegetables visible and easy to grab.
  • Store healthy snacks at eye level in the fridge or pantry (rather than those you want to discourage consumption of!).
  • Limit the availability of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods like sugary snacks and drinks.

2. Provide Repeated Exposure to New Foods

Introducing new foods multiple times is key to helping children accept and enjoy them. Research shows that children's initial reluctance to try new foods is normal and often resolves with age. A study tracking 120 children over nine years found that many experienced phases of picky eating, particularly before age three, which often improved by age six2.

Knowing that this is an expected phase of childhood can help you stay calm if (or when!) your previously adventurous eater suddenly puts her foot down about vegetables. Remember that your job is to keep offering.

Practical Tips

  • Offer new foods regularly without pressuring your child to eat them.
  • Be patient and persistent, understanding that it may take several exposures before a child accepts a new food.
  • Create a positive mealtime environment where trying new foods is encouraged but not forced.

3. Use Supportive Food Parenting Practices

Food parenting practices encompass the behaviors used by parents to influence their child’s behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs around food and eating. 

These can either be supportive or coercive.

Supportive food parenting practices foster autonomy and a positive attitude towards food. These include encouraging variety and balance without pressuring children to eat or using food as a reward or punishment.

Coercive practices, such as forcing a child to eat or restricting certain foods, can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors and emotional issues.

A longitudinal study of 173 9-year-olds found that tightly restricting a child’s food intake resulted in an increased desire for energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and was associated with kids eating in the absence of hunger3.  

Practical Tips

  • - Encourage balance and variety in your child's diet.
  • - Avoid making comments about your child's eating habits.
  • - Don't use food as a reward or punishment.

4. Model Healthy Eating Behaviors

Children learn by observing their parents. Studies consistently show a positive correlation between parents' and children's eating habits. When parents model healthy eating behaviors, children are more likely to adopt these habits themselves.

If you want your kids to eat fruits and vegetables, they have to see you do it. If you want your kids to drink enough water, be willing to try new foods, love tacos, bake cookies, eat a balanced diet … they have to see you do that as well. 

Various cross-sectional studies4-6 have shown a positive correlation between parents’ food intake and their child's. Because these studies are cross-sectional we cannot make statements about causality, but in the literature there is consistently an association between what you eat and what your kids do. 

Practical Tips

  • Eat a variety of healthy foods in front of your children.
  • Drink water and avoid sugary beverages.
  • Try new foods with your children to show that it's okay to be curious and adventurous with food.

5. Have Family Meals

Regular family meals are associated with numerous positive outcomes.

In a meta-analysis of more than 180,000 kids7, children and adolescents who share family meals 3 or more times per week are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier dietary and eating patterns than those who share fewer than 3 family meals together. 

But it's not just their diet and health that benefitted. Eating family meals has been associated with lower rates of substance abuse, depression, and disordered eating as well as higher levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy8.

How do family meals help?

Another recent meta analysis provides some clues. In a systematic review of 49,000 individuals, positive associations consistently emerged between 5 components and children's nutritional health: Turning the TV off during meals, parental modeling of healthy eating, higher food quality, positive atmosphere, children's involvement in meal preparation, and longer meal duration9.

Shared meals provide a time for open communication and bonding, which can enhance a child's overall well-being.

Practical Tips

  • Aim to have family meals at least three times a week.
  • Focus on the quality of the time spent together rather than the time of day.
  • Use mealtimes to discuss the day's events and foster a supportive family environment.

CONCLUSION

By making healthy foods accessible, providing repeated exposures to new foods, using supportive parenting practices, modeling healthy behaviors, and having family meals, you can significantly influence your child's eating habits and overall health. Implementing these strategies can help create a positive and lasting relationship with food for your child.


REFERENCES

1. Story, M.; Kaphingst, K.M.; Robinson-O’Brien, R.; Glanz, K. Creating healthy food and eating environments: Policy and environmental approaches. Annu. Rev. Public Health 2008, 29, 253–272.

2. Mascola, A.J.; Bryson, S.W.; Agras, W.S. Picky eating during childhood: A longitudinal study to age 11 years. Eat Behav. 2010, 11, 253–257.

3. Galloway, A.T.; Fiorito, L.; Lee, Y.; Birch, L.L. Parental Pressure, Dietary Patterns, and Weight Status among Girls Who are ‘Picky Eaters. J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 2005, 105, 541–548.

4. Hansson, L.M.; Heitmann, B.L.; Larsson, C.; Tynelius, P.; Willmer, M.; Rasmussen, F. Associations between Swedish Mothers’ and 3- and 5-Year-Old Children’s Food Intake. J. Nutr. Educ. Behav. 2016, 48, 520–529.

5. Hall, L.; Collins, C.E.; Morgan, P.J.; Burrows, T.L.; Lubans, D.R.; Callister, R. Children’s intake of fruit and selected energy-dense nutrient-poor foods is associated with fathers’ intake. J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 2011, 111, 1039–1044.

6. Miller, P.; Moore, R.H.; Kral, T.V. Children’s daily fruit and vegetable intake: Associations with maternal intake and child weight status. J. Nutr. Educ. Behav. 2011, 43, 396–400.

7 Fullerton, J. Story M., Mellin, A, Leffert N., Neumark-Sztainer, D., French SA. Family dinner meal frequency and adolescent development: relationships with developmental assets and high-risk behaviors. J Adolesc Health. 2006 Sep;39(3):337-45. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.12.026

8. Harrison, M.E.; Norris, M.L.; Obeid, N.; Fu, M.;Weinstangel, H.; Sampson, M. Systematic review of the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth. Can. Fam. Physician Med. Fam. Can. 2015, 61, e96–e106

9. Dallacker, M. Hertwig, R, Mata, J. Quality matters: A meta-analysis on components of healthy family meals. Health Psychol. 2019 Dec;38(12):1137-1149. doi: 10.1037/hea0000801.Epub 2019 Sep 26. PMID: 31556657. DOI: 10.1037/hea0000801

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