Developing Healthy Habits in Children (Part 1)

By Heather Irwin, MS, RD, LDN

Whether it be in my office or around friends and family, a question I often get is, how do I get my kids to eat healthy? I know as a parent, when my children were younger, dinner time could be quite a stressful time. Kids are notorious for having picky palates and it can be a challenge to get kids to eat a healthful diet with variety. We know that in adults and children, the quality of their diet can affect their disease risk, weight status, and even mental health. Despite this, I think some parents assume their children’s habits are set in stone and will never change. In this two-part series, I wanted to give you some practical tips to help your child establish good eating habits.

Tip #1 – Start early

If possible, start before birth. A child’s taste preferences develop in the womb. A pregnant and nursing woman can prioritize eating a wide variety of foods which will help your baby develop a wide range of flavors before they even have their first solids.

Tip #2 – Variety is the spice of life

Once your child is ready for solids, offer as many options as possible. There are many ways to introduce solids, but participating in baby-led weaning may help expose your child to flavors and textures sooner.

Tip #3- Emphasize non-sweet flavors

The human body is wired to enjoy sweetness. Try to offer larger quantities of foods like vegetables, meats, and beans than sweet foods. Fruits are fine, but just don’t forget other savory, bitter, or sour flavors. Also keep in mind that providing added sugars to children under 2 is discouraged.

Tip #4 – Encourage but don’t force

It may be tempting, but pressuring your child to finish a meal or try a new food can often backfire. This can lead to a decreased liking of that food and promote picky eating. One feeding philosophy is that it is the parent’s responsibility to offer foods, but up to the child to determine how much to eat. Also, the parent can take the role of modeling consumption of a particular food item to set a good example.

Heather Irwin, MS, RD, LDN
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