Good nutrition is essential for children. A nutritious and well-balanced diet keeps kids feeling energized, helps them reach their full growth potential and perform better in school. Plus, good eating habits established during childhood often carry into adulthood — which means what you do now can really help your kids stay healthy throughout their life.
That being said, getting your kids to eat and actually enjoy nutritious foods can be challenging, so I’ve put together 10 do’s and don’ts to help you build healthy eaters and take the stress out of mealtime.
1. Do involve your kids. Our kids are more capable in the kitchen than we often give them credit for. Assign them age-appropriate tasks, have them help pack their own school lunches. You can even get the kids involved in meal planning by letting them choose one meal to help make each week.
2. Do let them decide. At mealtime, let your child decide whether, what and how much they eat, allowing them to serve themselves if they’re old enough. Doing so helps kids feel empowered and more in control which can lead to increases in both the amount and variety of foods they’ll eat.
3. Do be a good role model. Your kids begin to take notice of what you’re eating at a very young age. Research shows children, ranging from preschoolers to adolescents, eat more fruits and vegetables when meals include the same foods and are eaten at the same time as their parents. For this reason it’s important you lead by example with a “do as I do” approach.
4. Do serve new or “yucky” foods alongside familiar favorites. Kids are much more willing to try new foods when they’re not feeling pressured to do so. This approach allows you to gently offer new foods without making your child feel forced to eat it. And remember, it can take upwards of 20 exposures before your kiddo learns to eat (and hopefully enjoy) a new food, so consistency and patience is key.
5. Do serve family-style meals. Eating with your kids promotes positive role modeling but allowing your children to serve themselves also has its perks. Handing over those serving spoons gives your child the choice of what and how much to eat, which makes them feel empowered and more in control at mealtime. This in turn increases the amount and variety of foods they’ll eat, and new foods they’ll try.
6. Don’t reward healthy eating with food. Research shows that offering food rewards, like dessert, almost always makes the reward food more desirable and healthy foods less desirable. If you want to encourage your child to try a new food or have another few bites of veggies, consider non-food rewards like extra time to play outside with friends, stickers that can be traded in for a toy at the end of the month, or a few extra minutes of screentime after dinner.
7. Don’t be duped into making multiple dinners. Don’t fall into the trap of making your kiddo a second supper when they refuse to eat what you’ve prepared. They will quickly catch on and come to expect it at every meal! Your role as a parent to buy and prepare a variety of healthful foods to offer at meals and snacks and create a relaxed, comfortable eating environment for your child. Let them do the rest.
8. Don’t nag or negotiate at the dinner table. If your kiddos don’t touch their veggies, forcing them to eat them on them only works against you. Research shows an authoritarian parenting style at mealtime increases children’s preferences for less desirable foods and decreases preferences for healthier foods. It’s OK if there’s some broccoli left behind. Building a healthy eater happens over one time, not one meal.
9. Don’t push your kids to clean their plate. No one likes to waste food, but if your child isn’t famished when dinnertime rolls around, refrain from pressuring them to eat or finish their plate. Doing so overrides your child’s satiety cues, negatively impacting their ability to self-regulate their intake, and also creates a power struggle you’re sure to lose. Instead, put your child’s plate in the fridge. Reheat it if they get hungry before bed or pack the leftovers for lunch the next day.
10. Don’t hype healthfulness. This may seem a bit backwards, but research shows when children hear about the benefits of a healthy food, they’re less likely to eat it — or end up eating less of it. You’re better off simply serving dinner without saying anything about its healthfulness. Instead, emphasize how good the food tastes!