January 23, 2021

How to get kids to prefer healthy eating

Letting kids take more control of their own food intake may lead to healthier food preferences and appetite regulation.

Back to school. Back to the battle of getting kids to eat healthfully without you hovering over them. Many parents feel pressure to ensure that their kids have a perfectly healthy diet - especially with constant media talk about childhood obesity. But what does that mean and HOW do you make it happen?

The good news is that getting children to prefer healthful foods - without constant policing - may be simpler than it sounds. While it’s logical to ‘ban’ junk foods and set strict rules around food and eating, a more relaxed approach may actually be more beneficial, according to a recent statement from the American Heart Association.

While it is important to build a positive food environment by buying and preparing healthy food options, giving children the freedom to decide what they eat, when and how much can help to cultivate a healthy relationship with food and enable children to heed their bodies’ hunger and fullness signals (which means less chance of overeating now and in the long term). Less rigid food rules (i.e. not forbidding any foods but designating ‘sometimes foods’) have also been linked to less interest in high-sugar, high-fat ‘treat’ foods. It’s like reverse psychology.

Not sure where to start? Try these simple tips.

  • Where possible, set routines for mealtimes with consistent timings and practices (e.g. sitting down with the family at the table for dinner for half an hour with the television off and mobile devices out of reach).
  • For all meals and snacks, encourage mindful eating, whereby food is consumed in designated windows, ideally sitting down. Teach children to make eating a 'slow' experience, starting with observing the texture and smell of a food. Encourage eating with utensils rather than fingers and thorough chewing before swallowing. In this time, encourage kids to notice both the mouthfeel and flavours and their sense of hunger or fullness.
  • Provide choice and variety and allow children to make their own food choices (get them invested by including them in the week’s lunchbox or dinner planning). Vary combinations to prevent boredom. Provide regular opportunities to try new, healthy foods. For fussy eaters, introduce new foods by pairing them with familiar foods children already enjoy.
  • Pay attention to a child's verbal or non-verbal hunger and fullness cues and avoid pressuring children to eat more than they wish to eat.
  • Place the emphasis on enjoying nourishing, delicious foods rather than the negative effects of unhealthy eating. Don’t focus on body weight or its relationship to food or eating. Also avoid punishing children for what they do or don't eat.
  • Get kids involved in cooking healthy foods they’ll be proud to take to school (savoury muffins such as zucchini and bacon are great healthy treats).
  • Build in treats and dessert so kids don’t feel restricted or deprived, but make them healthy (e.g. blueberries with yoghurt or custard, frozen bananas with cacao, honey or peanut butter).

If you’re concerned about whether your child is obtaining the nutrition they need for optimal brain and body development, consider consulting an accredited practising dietitian (APD), who can evaluate your child’s diet and eating behaviours and provide strategies and targets to get them eating well

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