When it comes to health and nutrition, we have a hard enough time holding ourselves to a healthy diet. Helping our kids eat healthy foods is another challenge altogether. Family nutrition can feel like an uphill battle, but it doesn’t have to be a constant struggle. Even if your kids are picky eaters, struggling with allergies, or just plain refuse to eat their vegetables, there are ways that you can start teaching them healthy eating habits.
These are some of my top nutritional strategies for families.
7 Healthy Eating Strategies for Kids and Families
1) Lead by example.
One mistake that parents make after their children reach the “solid food” stage is making separate meals for their children than they make for themselves. This is often done out of desperation because they simply won’t eat what the parents are eating. One thing that parents need to understand, however, is that children will learn by watching their parents. If they see you eating something, they will likely want to follow suit...eventually.
I encourage fixing one well-balanced meal for the whole family. Children can then pick and choose what they want to eat from what you’ve served. Will they eat it all? Not likely. But watching you, they’ll eventually get to the point where they will probably eat most of it.
Remember, too, that your kids will notice your relationship with food. If you’re an emotional or impulsive eater, always crash dieting, or eating tons of junk...it will affect them. Good habits have to start with you.
It’s tough not to order our kids to eat when they refuse. Sometimes, though, all we can do is serve them good food. Remember, telling them to eat something over and over again may just make them rebel against the idea more.
There has to be room for choice and compromise at mealtime. Sometimes that means adding some sugar to the carrots to make them a little more palatable to younger taste buds or putting bananas in muffins rather than serving them raw.
Other times, it’s just not forcing your kids to eat peas when they already ate their carrots. Pick your battles and take small health victories where you can find them.
3) Create positive associations.
Eating should be a positive, enjoyable experience for everyone. Start early on by building and creating positive associations with healthy foods. “It’s good for you,” doesn’t really cut it for most kids. Back in the day, Popeye got an entire generation to eat their spinach by showing how it gave him superhuman strength, and you can do the same.
Tell them about how healthy their favorite athletes have to eat, or how eating their fruits and vegetables will help them do their favorite activities.
4) Praise healthy choices.
More than encouraging your children to eat well, make sure you praise them when they, by their own choice, make good food choices. When they pick water over soda, fruit over cookies, or carrot sticks over chips. Even small victories count. Maybe they didn’t go back for extra when you knew they didn’t need it. Praise them for exercising self-control. Make sure they know that you’re proud of their good choices.
5) Don’t create shame around food.
On the flip side, be careful not to shame your kids for poor nutritional decisions. It’s easy to do if we're not mindful. We all worry about our children’s health, and we can have a knee-jerk reaction when they consume too much junk. But if we make them feel ashamed about what they eat, it can lead to eating disorders, hiding food, rebellion, or simply a bad relationship with eating and dieting.
Instead, encourage alternatives and better choices, but let them decide with the information you've given them.
6) Allow occasional treats.
It’s also good to remember not to deprive children of occasional treats. A sweet cereal at a hotel breakfast or popcorn at the movie theater once in awhile isn’t going to hurt them. Get ice cream as a family once in a blue moon. Enjoy the occasional fair food or holiday treat. Have birthday cake. These are some of life’s joys. Depriving yourself or your kids of these little pleasures in the name of health isn’t going to make them feel good and it’s not going to add a day to their lives or have a long-term impact on their health.
Allow your family to enjoy treats in moderation. If you don’t, you may find your kids binging on them in the future when they have the freedom to do so when they’re not under your house and your rules.
7) Brush up on your own knowledge.
One last word of warning: if you want your family to succeed in its healthy eating goals, you have to actually know what you’re doing. Know what is and isn’t good to eat. What is and isn’t a balanced meal and what your kids should have at their age. You’d be surprised what people think is okay for kids to eat!
Brush up on your nutritional knowledge and make a plan for your family. There’s so much debate out there about what is and what isn’t okay to feed kids, so that needs to be part of the discussion. Talk to your pediatrician. They can help you come up with a game plan.
What gets your kids to eat healthy? Share your tips in the comments.