How to Get Children to Develop Healthier Eating Habits
For much of the last 10 years, I’ve had one nutritional question on my mind: How can I get my children to make healthy food choices?
As a parent with diabetes, I obsess about arming them with the nutritional tools necessary to live healthful lives whether they develop diabetes or go through life without it. But man, it’s hard.
I’ve tried a lot of tricks to get them to eat the way I want them to. During one period of her development, our daughter tended to overeat, so we restricted her calories. The other child tended to undereat, so we encouraged him to eat more. Zero impact.
When they were pickier, we tried to force them to eat more exotic fare—say spinach. Both kids immediately learned how to wretch and gag. My son impersonated Gollum, screaming “it burns, it burns.”
In other cases, I’ve outright banned certain foods (candy) from the house so that they won’t eat those foods.
Turns out many of the strategies I’ve tried—the strategies learned from my own parents—aren’t very effective. Take removing candy from the house: When we forbid certain foods, we tend to increase our children's desire to get and eat that food.
It's taken a while for me to ignore my own instincts and focus on what nutritional research says works. Here are some other evidence-based tricks that are working for us:
• Try to introduce foods more than once. Children can learn to accept “greater varieties of food and flavors through repeated exposure.” We’re trying this strategy with our more picky eight-year-old. Over several years, his diet is broadening. He eats chili now. He wouldn’t touch it a year ago.
• Let your own eating habits be their guide. If you eat fruits and vegetables, chances are your middle schooler will, too.
• Encourage your children to stop eating when they’re full. (I’ll never utter “clean your plate” again.) As parents, we often override our children’s self-regulating function. I remember all our efforts to force feed our son when he was a toddler. We thought he was undereating. Your pediatrician should be your guide, but there’s plenty of evidence that most children self-regulate their food needs.
• Give children some control. We’ve tried this with dinner planning, and it’s working.
• Teach moderation, and emphasize healthy food choices. Pressure to overeat among underweight kids and parent-enforced caloric restriction diets tend to back fire once the child or teen is out of parental control. Instead, have an ongoing conversation about healthy eating habits. Research suggests this is more effective.