Teaching kids to eat well can be tricky. You don’t want to give them more facts than they can grasp or turn every meal into a lecture. But wait too long and they could pick up unhealthy habits in the meantime.
“Kids need to know that every food they put into their bodies affects them,” says Danelle Fisher, MD, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.
Parents can get that message across by talking with kids about the food they put in their bodies, why it matters, and how they can learn to make the healthiest choices.
Not just a rule, but a routine. Make sure healthy foods are the default setting for your family’s meals, and get everyone involved in choosing some nutritious, tasty options. Take kids with you to the grocery store or farmers market. Younger kids can pick out fresh fruits and veggies. Older kids can take on larger roles like choosing recipes and making a shopping list.
Show kids what “eating right” looks like. Explain that they should fill half their plate with fruits and veggies that have nutrients that will help their bodies grow. The other half should be whole grains and lean protein that gives them energy to run, dance, and play. When you’re cooking or grocery shopping, show them different examples of these key food groups.
Avoid calling foods “good” or “bad.” Kids should learn that all foods have a place in their diet. Label foods as “go,” “slow,” or “whoa.” Kids can “green light” foods like whole grains and skim milk they should have every day and “slow down” with less healthy foods like waffles. Foods with the least nutrition, such as french fries, don’t need to be off limits, but kids should stop and think twice before they eat them often.
Talk about portion size. It’s not just what kids eat that matters, but how much. Even very young kids can learn that the amount of rice or pasta they eat should match the size of their fist. Protein should be palm-sized, and fats like butter or mayonnaise about the tip of their thumb. When you buy packaged foods, have kids help you find the serving size. Then talk about why sticking to it is a good idea.
Limit sweets. Explain to older kids that while candy and cookies taste good, sugar can do their body more harm than good. (You can tell younger kids that too many sweets will make them feel “yucky.”) Then, offer fresh fruit for desserts and limit treats to two or three times a week to keep cravings for sweets in check.
Help kids stay in touch with their “hunger cues.” We’re born knowing to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full. But that’s easy to ignore when you’re surrounded by snacks and giant portions. To help kids listen to their bodies, don’t push them to have “one more bite” or clean their plate. Turn off screens during meals, too. They distract kids from paying attention to how much they’re eating and when they’ve had enough.
Model good eating habits. If you push your kids to eat broccoli but never touch it yourself, you might need to take a closer look at your diet. Every bite you take matters. “Role modeling is one of the best ways to get your children onboard with healthier eating,” says Stephanie Middleberg, a registered dietitian in New York City.
Eat dinner as a family. Kids who eat meals with their family are more likely to eat healthy fruits, veggies, and whole grains. (They’re also less apt to snack on junk food.) You don’t need to lecture about nutrition while you eat. Make meals together fun. Turn on some music, choose silly games to play, or let kids invite a friend.
Check in with your family doctor. If you think your child needs to lose or gain weight, don’t put them on a diet. Instead, speak to their doctor. “Your pediatrician can help you discuss basic food groups, meal time behaviors, food portions, and weight,” Fisher says.