By Faith Hicks, MS, RD, LD/N, CSP
Senior Clinical Dietitian
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared in The Baltimore Sun 03/07/12, in the Taste section and online.
How is it that some kids will eat whatever is put in front of them, while others live on hot dogs and chicken nuggets and have a phobia for vegetables, especially anything green? As adults, we know that we ourselves probably should be eating more fruits and vegetables, and we would like to raise our kids to have healthier eating habits and a varied diet right from the start. There are a number of ways parents and other adults can promote good eating habits from early childhood and throughout the teen years.
Make a regular “date night” – a family dinner date night, that is!
One of the best ways of promoting good eating habits in children is to make eating meals together a priority. This is something that often gets lost in the shuffle of soccer practice and scout meetings, but try to identify at least one or two nights a week to have dinner as a family. Children who are raised having regular family meals generally consume more servings of fruits and vegetables and develop a liking for a wider variety. They also tend to have a diet lower in fat and are less likely to become overweight than children from families who eat on the run. From the start, toddlers mimic their parents’ eating habits. So a parent who includes fruits and vegetables at mealtimes sets the example that these foods are tasty and that consuming them is the norm and is expected.
There are other important benefits of having meals as a family. Children whose families dine together regularly develop better language skills. During dinner conversation, they are exposed to a larger vocabulary. They become adept at participating in a higher level conversation. Another benefit of family meals extends into the teen years, teens that regularly have dinner with the family get better grades and are less likely to try drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. It seems that mealtimes help foster a sense of connectedness within the family and when parents are tuned into their teens, teens are less tempted to dabble in risky behavior.
Lighten up and don’t turn mealtime into a “pressure cooker”
Another way of fostering a varied diet is to offer new foods several times and without undue pressure. It may take more than several times trying a new food for a toddler or preschooler to accept it, so don’t give up after the first try! Place a small portion of each food that you are having on your child’s plate. When they see that you eat it, the expectation is set that they will like it, too. Beware of trying too hard to persuade a child to eat because this might backfire! It can send the message that the food item is not very appealing. For example, if a child is rewarded for eating green beans by getting a cookie, the parent sends a message that green beans are yucky. The child may think “that must not taste very good if I have to be bribed with treat.” Rather, make a light-hearted request for the child to just to try “just a bite.”
Involve kids in food shopping and preparation.
Children and teens are more interested in foods they have selected, prepared, or even grown at home. Wander the produce section of the grocery store with your child and let him choose a new vegetable or fruit to try each week. Buy a colorful, child-oriented cookbook to provide ideas for foods you can prepare together. Cooking together provides an opportunity to learn other skills, such as fractions. Even small children can be safely involved in cooking activities such as washing produce or putting toppings on a veggie pizza. Consider planting even a small garden and check out seed displays with your child. Seed companies sell kid-friendly vegetables in packets bearing very appealing pictures. Children who are drawn to miniature things may be fascinated by picking cherry tomatoes or pulling from the ground the baby carrots planted earlier in the spring. Brussels sprouts might be a little more fun to eat once you have seen how they seem to march in lines as they grow from the plant’s stem!
In summary, the key to raising a “good eater” is having fun with food together, right from the start.