5 Ways To Support Children’s Healthy Eating Habits

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How do adults unknowingly overfeed children? Research has shown that adults are concerned if the child is eating enough, and a straightforward approach to alleviate this concern is to pressure children to eat.

“Do you need a snack?” “Can I get you another helping?” “Eat just one more bite. You will be hungry later!”

Research has shown that children up to 5 years of age can self-regulate their energy intake, or will eat or not eat based on their hunger and fullness signals. Why then, do we feel compelled to insist children eat everything on their plate? Why do we mandate children eat all of their green beans and drink all of their milk? By requiring that children meet these conditions for eating (and more), adults are actually teaching children to follow our cues for being full rather than their own.

Have you said to your child, “If you eat all your veggies, you can have dessert”? Most of us have used food as a reward in an effort to get children to eat more fruits and vegetables. However, such controlling practices (such as pressuring children to eat or offering food as a reward) negatively impacts children’s eating habits and is a risk factor for obesity.

Sit Down At A Table Together

Children are also more likely to put food on their plate, which increases the chance they will actually try a new food when they see their friends, teachers or another adult with a particular food on their plate. If you are a parent or child care professional you might not get another chance to sit down, connect with the children and relax, so don’t miss out – this is your excuse to take a load off and enjoy a meal together!

Turn Off The Television

What is so important on the television that can’t wait until after dinner? Television is jam packed with commercials that have my kids saying “I want that”, “Mom, can we get those.” Plus, commercials about food make us hungry! It doesn’t matter if we just ate –seeing commercials advertising food often leave us feeling famished.

Ask “Would You…” Or “Are You…”

Parents and professionals should focus on asking rather than telling when it comes to meal times. Rather than, “You need to try the asparagus” consider, “This asparagus tastes fresh and yummy. Would you like to try it?” Positive peer pressure occurs when a child tastes the food and then asks a friend to try it.

As the meal time is winding down you might say, “Boy my tummy is full, I don’t think I could eat another bite”. If children are still eating you could say, “You ate all of your peaches, if you are hungry you can have some more”. Research has shown that when you use the terms hunger and fullness you are supporting children’s internal cues. Just asking if they want more may override a child’s internal signals. Since children can recognize their internal signals of hunger and fullness, it is important to support and cue them by asking if they are hungry, when offering them more food.

Practice Family Style Dining

Research shows that children learn over time to take the right amount of food based on their internal cues for hunger and fullness. There are plenty of times for you to wait on your little ones hand and foot – the dinner table doesn’t need to be one of those times.

A great way to practice with children serving themselves is to add kitchen items to the dramatic play area. This will give children an opportunity to balance trays of food and pour milk and tea. For actual meal times, consider using or purchasing small serving bowls, and a small pitcher for the milk. Items like table spoons, ¼ and ½ cup measuring spoons and cups are also great to use to teach not only appropriate serving sizes but math at the same time!

It is perfectly ok to state that children can have 2 chicken strips, or 3 brussel sprouts to start out with, and more if they are still hungry. Sometime children get overly excited about being able to take their own food so I recommend stating a number before the bowl starts going around.

Serve milk last. It never fails that no matter how careful kids are, milk inevitably spills – don’t cry over it (or yell), simply ask the little one to grab a towel or paper towels and clean up their mess. The littler ones may need some assistance at the end, but should still be given the opportunity to learn that they need to clean-up their spills.

Childcare Professionals And Parent Communication

Parents and child care professionals should be in constant communication about meal times. Child care providers should mention if the child didn’t eat anything and in turn parents should mention if that matters to them or not. Communication about food is a must.

Research has shown that children will eat when they are hungry, so you do not need to pressure them. I am not suggesting you withhold food. It should be made very clear to the child that lunch (or whatever meal you are currently eating) is all they get until snack which is served at a specific time. Communicate to families and with family members and friends that this is how you work meal times and ask for support before this comes about.

Remember, no matter how innocent your intentions are with your children or the children you serve, they should be making the decision about how hungry or full they are. Children will eat when they are hungry – make the most of your meal and snack times and enjoy these early years. They will be over before you know it!

To learn more about effective ways to support healthy eating habits in children, check out Dr. Dev’s Other Work 

Dr. Dipti Dev, Extension Educator | The Learning Child

Make sure to follow The Learning Child on social media for more research-based early childhood education resources!

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