How to Teach Your Child Healthy Digestive Habits

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on January 08, 2013
4 min read

After-school events, sports practice, homework, and socializing: These days, kids are as busy as adults.

And just like us, our children can fall into bad habits with how, when, and what they eat. Here are some nutrition mistakes that children are making, and what parents can do to help them develop good digestive habits.

Maybe your little one only likes yellow food, or your teen can't be bothered with dairy -- it's picky eating like this that can keep kids from getting what they need from each food group, says pediatrician Chris Tolcher, MD, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine.

Expert Tip: Balance your child’s diet.

  • Get familiar with the food guide, suggests Tolcher, and help kids learn how to get what they need from each food group. Confused by the old food pyramid? Check out the USDA's new, easier-to-understand ChooseMyPlate guide, which offers clear tips on just how much produce, protein, and other important nutrients kids need.
  • Consider calories. How many calories your kids need depends on their age and activity, but here's a rough guide: Children between 2 and 3 need about 1,000-1,400 calories per day; older kids and teen girls need about 1,600-2,200 calories and teen boys about 2,200-2,800 calories, depending on activity level.
  • Watch portions. Encourage kids to enjoy what they eat -- but to eat in moderation. One way to stop eating too much: Use smaller plates, bowls, and spoons.

Grabbing meals or snacks on their way out the door can lead to upset stomachs, overeating, or just eating the wrong thing, as kids aim for grab-and-go food.

Expert Tip:Encourage kids to pay attention to what they eat.

Eating more mindfully is another key to good digestive health for kids, says Gerard Mullin, MD, author of The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health. When we eat slowly, we enjoy our food more -- and often eat less. Tips to help kids eat mindfully:

  • Sit down to eat. Eating in the car or on the way to school prevents kids from being aware that they've eaten.
  • Eliminate distractions. Encourage kids to put away books, smart phones, computers, and games while they eat. Don’t allow texting or hand-held games at the dinner table.
  • Notice the food. Satisfaction comes when we smell, touch, and really taste our food, so make sure kids do just that.
  • Listen. Teach kids to pay attention to what their body is telling them, to learn when they're truly hungry, and when they're full.

Chips, sodas, sweets: At school, home, at the corner store, everywhere they turn, kids have easy access to high-calorie, low-nutrition snack foods and drinks -- and they love them. In fact, some estimates have kids eating fast food 157 million times a month.

Expert Tip: Don't bring junk into the house.

There's not much you can do when kids are away from home, but you can keep calorie-dense, low-nutrition food and drink out of the family cupboards.

Bringing home occasional treats is great, but stock the pantry with plenty of healthy snacks too, advises Tolcher. Think nuts like cashews, almonds, walnuts; fruits like cherries, apricots, grapes; and crunchy-sweet veggies like red peppers and carrots -- body-building foods that also taste great.

Some kids drink a lot of juice, milk, sports drinks, and sweetened sodas, and not nearly enough water. And though these drinks are high in calories, they're generally low in fiber and other things that help kids feel full, so it's easy to drink too much of them.

Expert Tip: Drink more water.

Water makes up every cell in our bodies and is vital to digesting and eliminating food, so it's a great idea to encourage kids to get more of it. How much water should kids drink?

  • Water. There's no set target for exactly how much water children need, the best idea is to just encourage kids to drink as much as they want. Boost water's appeal by making it easy to access. Try having a clear, icy jug of it in the fridge; add sliced oranges, lemons, and strawberries to make it look and taste great.
  • Other drinks. For kids under 13, pediatrician Tolcher suggests keeping milk intake to 24 ounces daily or less. For juice, aim for 6 ounces or less for kids under 6, and a maximum of 12 ounces for kids 7 and up.

TV, video games, and computer time: These activities keep kids indoors and sedentary -- but kids need exercise for good health. Physical activity not only helps kids maintain a healthy weight, it can boost self-esteem and self-confidence; it even aids digestive health and is key in treating issues like constipation.

Expert Tip: Aim for 60 minutes of activity daily.

Encourage kids to get outside and stay active, advises pediatrician Scott Cohen, MD, attending physician at Cedars Sinai Medical Center and author of Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Complete Common Sense Guide to Your Baby's First Year. Kids over 2 should aim for 60 minutes of moderate activity daily, which can be broken into two 30-minute or even four 15-minute blocks. The key: Get moving!

Eating right is a family effort. How to get your kids to eat a balanced diet, get plenty of exercise, and avoid too much junk food? One way kids learn good digestive health habits is by seeing them modeled.

"Parents need to set a good example of healthy eating for their children," Tolcher tells WebMD. As much as we wish otherwise, "'Do as I say but not as I do' does not work on children!"