Teaching Kids Healthy Food Habits
The eating habits that we learn as kids can influence us for a lifetime. Think about your own family’s eating habits while you were growing up and how they’ve shaped your preferences and attitudes toward food, for better or for worse. Now that you’ve got your own family to feed, what kind of eating habits do you want to teach your kids? Can you show them what healthy eating looks like, teach them to listen to their bodies, and help them build a healthy, balanced relationship with food? Here are some tips for helping your kids build healthy food habits.
1. Set Regular Family Mealtimes
Kids thrive on structure and routine. Knowing what to expect helps them feel secure and makes it easy for them to build healthy habits through repetition. No matter how crazy and complicated family schedules can get, it’s important to prioritize regular mealtimes when the family can gather together to eat and reconnect. Eating at the same time every day helps regulate circadian rhythms and metabolism while providing a comforting ritual for kids.
This is your best opportunity to nurture healthy eating habits by serving balanced meals in an atmosphere of family togetherness. Regular family meals leave a lasting impression on kids that sets an example of healthy eating and links it with positive memories. Studies suggest that young people tend to have healthier diets in families that eat together regularly.1
2. Get the Kids Involved
Getting kids involved in meal planning and prep gives them a sense of ownership over what they’re eating and a chance to learn more about food. Take the kids to the farmer’s market or the grocery store and let them choose fruits and vegetables that they like. If they reach for packaged foods you don’t approve of, show them how to check the label and find something with better ingredients.
Plant a garden with your kids and let them watch seeds sprout into fruits and veggies they can eat. Have kids help out in the kitchen with cooking and food prep, giving them a sense of accomplishment and inclusion. Kids are more likely to eat foods that they were involved in growing, selecting, or preparing.
3. Your Menu, Their Choice
Helping kids make smart decisions about food means giving them a certain amount of choice over what and when they eat. Kids need to learn to listen to their bodies to know when they are hungry or full. Forcing them to eat when they don’t want to turns mealtime into a power struggle and can create negative associations around food or encourage overeating.
But this doesn’t mean that kids should get to eat whatever they want, anytime they want. You set the menu and the meal schedule. Offer a selection of healthy foods at each meal, and let kids choose which things to eat and how much. But don’t let them choose something that’s off the menu. Encourage them to try at least a bite of everything, but don’t push it. If they get hungry between meals, let them know when the next mealtime or snacktime is.
3. Set Snacking Boundaries
Kids are growing fast and they need regular snacks to help keep them nourished. It’s up to you to show them how to snack smart.
Set some simple boundaries around snacking so that kids know it’s not a free-for-all. For instance, limit snacking to certain times of the day. Have kids eat at the table, not in front of the TV or computer, to discourage mindless snacking. Leave fruit out within easy reach, but keep things like chips and pretzels out of sight.
Offer snacks that combine protein, carbs, and fat from multiple food groups, such as whole grain crackers with tuna, veggie sticks with hummus, yogurt with fruit and granola, or toast with nut butter. This will help satisfy their appetite and support balanced blood sugar while setting an example of balanced nutrition.
4. Keep Food Emotionally Neutral
It can be tempting for parents to offer food or treats as a reward for good behavior or to comfort children when they’re upset. Unfortunately, this can easily lead to emotional eating patterns, as children may learn to habitually reward or soothe themselves with food.
Many parents have their own emotional relationship with food, and it’s easy to pass these attitudes along to our kids. For instance, parents who are preoccupied with weight or dieting may make negative comments about themselves or others for eating certain foods. This can create shame and anxiety around food and lead to disordered eating.
Try not to overload food with too much emotional significance. Don’t treat foods as a prize, a consolation, or a source of guilt. Foods aren’t “good” or “bad”, they just need to be kept in their proper place. Some are everyday foods and some are occasional treats.
Set a Healthy Example
More than anything, kids learn by watching what you do. Set a good example by eating balanced, nutritious meals and talk about how good they make you feel. Show kids that you’re not afraid to try new foods and recipes. Share your excitement about cooking and growing food. Don’t skip meals or follow extreme diets, and don’t make negative comments about your body or anyone else’s. Show kids that healthy habits are simply a form of self-care.
Kids can be picky eaters. How can you make sure they’re getting all the vitamins and minerals their growing bodies need? A daily multivitamin is a simple way to help fill in any nutrient gaps in your children’s diet. Try our Chewable Multivitamin for Children, our Whole Food Multivitamin Gummies for Kids, or our Whole Food Multivitamin for Teens.
1. Walton K, Horton NJ, Rifas-Shiman SL, et al. Exploring the Role of Family Functioning in the Association Between Frequency of Family Dinners and Dietary Intake Among Adolescents and Young Adults. JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(7):e185217. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.5217