Influencing children’s eating habits is one of the most important roles parents play. Parents establish the environment where the meals take place and decide what food is served. From positive eating experiences early on, children can develop healthy eating habits later in life. It’s common for parents to feel pressure and uncertainty around their crucial role in the feeding relationship. They might have memorable feeding experiences from their own childhood that influence how they want to parent around food. Perhaps resources like time and money impact decisions for feeding their family. Regardless, parents want what’s best for their children and that includes a healthy relationship with food.
As a dietitian, I try to get parents to focus on what they’re already doing well before discussing how they wish they were feeding their family differently. Plenty of parents can identify aspects of their family’s diet that have room for improvement, but that doesn’t mean they need to change their entire approach. Plus, small shifts to our habits and routines are most likely to last. In this month’s Nutritious Nudge, I want to share some general ways parents can positively influence their children’s eating habits. I’m sure many parents are doing these things already, but I hope it’s a helpful reminder of their role in feeding.
Provide regular meals and snacks.
Consistent and structured meal and snack times are especially beneficial to young children. It provides reassurance that food is available and can be expected. Parents should try to make healthy foods the usual choice for meals and snacks. They can use Guiding Stars while shopping at their local supermarket to add healthy foods to their cart.
Eat together when you can.
Eating more family meals together is always a good idea. I realize this is not always possible, but research on the benefits of family meals shows that the experience can improve the entire family’s health and happiness. During this time, parents can try to enjoy the foods they want their children to enjoy. Children learn to eat new foods by watching other people eat and enjoy them. They can talk to their children about how nutritious foods like fruits or vegetables taste and what they appreciate about them. If it’s something parents don’t particularly enjoy, they can explain how they are still learning to like it.
Trust your children to eat.
Naturally, children want to eat and grow up to eat the food their parents do. After establishing structured, sit-down family meals and snacks, parents can trust their children to decide if they want to eat a food and if so, how much. That doesn’t mean children get to change the menu, but the parents’ role is to enjoy their own food at the table too. They should try to avoid pressuring or forcing their children to eat healthy foods. Children will end up liking foods less if they are forced to eat them.
Avoid food as a reward and don’t forbid foods.
Children must learn that eating is a way to nourish our bodies and it is supposed to be a positive experience. Using food as a reward or punishment may encourage unhealthy eating habits. Forbidding foods can make children crave them even more. It’s usually more effective to limit the portion size or reduce the frequency that these treats are served.
Model the habits you want children to develop.
Children learn many habits from their most important role models: their parents. They notice what their parents eat and how their parents behave while eating. This impacts children’s behavior. Children can develop lifelong, healthy eating habits by watching their parents repeat those habits often.