Parents are children’s first teachers, and children learn important life lessons by watching and imitating their parents. From an early age, a child’s food preferences can be shaped by how parents engage with or relate to food. One of the ways we can help children develop healthy food behaviors is by modeling healthy eating habits.
As parents, examining our own food preferences and behaviors can help us identify gaps or areas we want to improve. We might ask ourselves, are we being reasonable about portion size, do we eat enough vegetables, how much processed food do we eat, how often do we sit down to eat as a family or how does our body feel after we eat certain food? When we understand the answers to questions like these we can determine what changes to make to create a food friendly environment for our family.
Every day there are numerous ways we can model and encourage our children to develop a healthy relationship with whole foods. Consider the following strategies:
- Bring your child on trips to the grocery store. Engage them in a conversation about fresh produce as you select fruits and vegetables.
- Let your child pick out a vegetable to include in a meal. When you get home talk about all the ways you can prepare the vegetable for your meal and let your child select the method of preparation.
- Try preparing the same food in new ways. For example, carrots can be eaten raw, roasted or steamed. Children may be delighted by food in different shapes. Raw carrots can be cut in long slender sticks or hefty sticks. They can also be cut in rounds or diced. In some food traditions they are cut into beautiful flowers and used as decorative pieces.
- Children can struggle with different textures. Some only want crunchy foods while others don’t do mushy. If your child is refusing certain foods consider the texture. If possible try preparing the food in a different way. Raw broccoli tastes really different from al dente broccoli, which tastes different from mashed or overcooked broccoli.
- Engage children in simple tasks like tearing lettuce for a salad or filling bowls with condiments and garnishes.
- Offer a variety of fresh, leafy greens vegetables at each meal. Rotate new foods into meals each week. The more whole foods you can expose your child to the more diverse palate they will develop.
- Introduce a new food several times. Let your child watch you enjoy the food. Even if your child refuses to eat it the first or second time they may decide to try it at a later. The most important thing is that you enjoy it and encourage gently by example not by force.
- Use fun words to describe the food you are eating – ‘yummy’, ‘delicious’, ‘savory’, ‘appetizing’, ‘flavorful’, ‘heavenly’, ‘robust’, ‘juicy’, ‘scrumptious’, etc
- Create a ‘no fail’ meal. Watching and learning your child’s food preferences allows you to plan a meal that they will enjoy and that you can feel good about serving. Include at least one ‘no fail’ food at each meal. This is a food you know your child will eat. This helps buffer the automatic ‘no’ a child sometimes screams when facing unfamiliar food.
- Be consistent. Determine your boundaries when it comes to how your child eats and stick with your decisions. Your child will respond best when you send a consistent message and they know what to expect.
- Plan at least one family meal each day. Sit with your child. Talk about the meal. What colors are represented at the meal? How many types of vegetables are on the table? Which food is the protein, carbohydrate or fat? What texture is each food?
It isn’t necessary to do everything on the list or to do it everyday. What’s important is that you keep your child engaged with food in a way that keeps it fresh and fun. Be creative, consistent and committed to healthy, wholesome food for the entire family.
How do you model healthy food habits for your child or children? Tell us below.