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Healthy Living Blog

Information and inspiration to help you make a habit out of living healthy.

7 Steps for Raising Nutrition-Savvy Kids

Thursday, November 29, 2018

By , YMCA Registered Dietitian and Mom of Three

Kids and grown-ups usually have conflicting opinions on what makes for a good meal. Just last week, I opened the front door after another exhausting day to the aroma of dinner simmering in the slow cooker, and I started to smile in anticipation. Meanwhile, my kids had a different reaction: “Mom! Why does the house stink?! What smells so bad?! You want us to eat THAT?!”

Simply getting kids (and ourselves!) fed and on to the next task can be a looming daily chore. I often worry about how to help my children understand the importance of healthy eating, while simultaneously raising three of the pickiest eaters on the planet!

As a single mom, my family’s days are long and busy. Maintaining the balance between feeding my kids food that they like and food that their growing bodies need can be a never-ending challenge. However, it is still so important to make time for teaching our children the basics of healthy eating. If you’re scratching your head as to where to begin (I’ve been there more than once!), read on for seven steps.

  1. Develop a strategy. According to Jill Castle, RD and Maryann Jacobsen, RD, the authors of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, the main challenge of feeding our families is the lack of a strategy. They write, “Our culture of feeding is very short-term focused and quick to offer advice on WHAT to feed, rather than on HOW or WHY.” Creating a plan for talking to our kids about food is the first step in developing healthier eating patterns for the entire family. Give some thought to your food beliefs and biggest eating habit concerns, and make a list of the most important things you want your kids to know about healthful eating. 

  2. Lead by example. Model the food selections and eating patterns that you want to see in your children. If taste and convenience are the sole factors that determine what you eat, your children will learn to make their choices based on the same things. So, eat your vegetables, put your phone away at meal time, have plenty of water and drink sodas in moderation, etc. Your children (from toddler to teenager) will learn so much more from watching you than from listening to your instructions. 

  3. Involve kids in food shopping. Make a meal plan for the week, and let your kids assist. This might slow down the food selection and grocery trip, but spending a little more time at this step is likely to save you time (and headaches!) at meals throughout the week. Talk to your children about the recipes and foods you’ve chosen, and let them participate in the shopping. From younger children simply holding the grocery list to older kids helping to find sales and calculate prices, there are so many teachable moments at the store.

  4. Involve kids in food prep. Include your children in the kitchen! By being involved, my kids have learned that chicken in the slow cooker isn’t all that different from chicken nuggets. It might get a little messy, but let your kids measure ingredients, fetch items from the refrigerator and even wash dishes as you work. This kind of quality time is priceless, not only for their developing knowledge of nutrition, but also for parent-child bonding. Make the most of it!

  5. Give kids choices. While being a short-order cook for your family members is not recommended, giving kids some options can encourage them to expand their food horizons and improve their attitudes about new foods. For example, if they aren’t a fan of the fruit being served, let them grab an apple from the refrigerator, but don’t let them skip eating fruits and veggies altogether. Also, allow kids to fix their own plates with the general rule that they have to get at least one bite of all the foods being offered (or an approved substitute). However, don't require them to eat everything on their plate. Empower your kids to make their own decisions and learn from the consequences.

  6. Try, try again. Be patient, but persistent. It can take from five to as many as 50 tries before a child will accept a new food. For children 3+ years old, continue to offer them one or two new foods per meal, and make certain you try them as well. Kids can be picky eaters, but so can adults! If your child continues to have major aversions to entire food groups or textures, or experiences gagging or vomiting regularly when trying new foods, seek your pediatrician’s advice. Food allergies and sensory disorders can affect the eating habits of children and sometimes “picky eating” can be masking a bigger issue.

  7. Eat together at the table. Giving a meal its own designated time slot in our hectic schedules shows children it's important. When we rush through meals, we tend to make poorer food choices and overeat. Teach your children early on that gathering as a family and devoting time to the preparation and consumption of meals is foundational to healthy living. For ideas on how to get the conversation started at your table, see my 8 Fun Questions to Ask Your Kids at Dinner.

Food likes and dislikes are personal. There is no perfect formula for healthy eating, and there is no magic pill for creating better habits. But making small changes over time, choosing our battles with picky eaters, and including our kids in preparation can bring healthier—and happier—mealtimes to our families. Bon appétit!

Establish healthy habits with the Y

Learn 5 ways to keep kids active and healthy and check out these simple relaxation techniques for the holiday season. A stronger you makes a stronger family! Get more information on nutrition counseling and wellness support services offered at your center.

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