Having children comes with certain stresses, responsibilities and joys. One of the biggest responsibilities that seems to be on every parent's mind these days is how to make sure that children make healthy food choices. With the overwhelming amount of unhealthy choices out there, the rise in childhood obesity, and advertising targeting children at an all-time high, it's no wonder that parents freeze up when it comes to finding healthy alternatives to the endless amounts of junk food. Any parent can encourage healthy eating in their children by following a few simple steps.
- Be a good role model. If your children find you dipping into the cookie jar an hour before dinner, you are sending the message that unhealthy snacking before meals is okay. Children also notice the choices you make when it comes to snacks. If you need to snack before dinner, be conscious of your choices. Instead of that handful of chips, try a handful of grapes or graham crackers. When you begin making healthier snacking choices for yourself, your children will see this and begin modeling it themselves. You cannot allow them to have only healthy foods while you snack on the cookies.
Remove the temptation. If you want your child to eat healthy food, then a surefire way to do this is to offer healthy foods on a daily basis. Sugary snacks, candy and chips should be a treat and not a part of a child's everyday diet. Limiting these snacks sends the message that it's okay to eat them every now and then but not all the time. A child who has primarily healthy choices available will opt more often for the things that are good for him, and healthy eating habits will become the norm in your household. That isn't to say that there won't be times when temptation will strike, but when it does, be prepared. For instance, if you know that you will be out running errands, instead of driving through the drive-thru for some fries and a burger, opt to take a few extra minutes before leaving to pack healthy snacks. Bringing along fruit, raw veggies, nuts or mini sandwiches, and some fruit juice or bottled water, will remove the temptation of eating somewhere with high-calorie and high-fat foods. It's a small step in encouraging your child to have good nutrition, but an important one.
Variety is the spice of life. It's important to offer your children foods that are healthy but also important to offer a wide variety to them, too. Having many different options to choose from not only helps to keep your children interested in the foods they eat but also makes sure that they get the required amounts of vitamins and minerals daily as well. You not only need to have a variety of foods for your child but you also need to have them readily available. Having healthy foods that are convenient and available now (with little or no preparation) will also help to remove the temptation of grabbing a handful of chips out of a bag. One way to make sure that they are available is to buy snacks in individual servings. A good example of this is applesauce or fruit cups. Another way to make healthy foods more readily available is to prepare them ahead of time. Washing vegetables and cutting them up if necessary can make them more appealing to a child. Children are all about the here and now--having that celery stalk or broccoli head already washed and cut may help them to satisfy their need for instant gratification (not to mention keep their fingers intact!)
Make it a family affair. It's possible to encourage good nutrition when the whole family gets involved. By making healthy eating habits part of your family's lifestyle, your child will grow up knowing the importance of eating right and making good food choices. There are three easy ways to teach your child the importance of good nutrition:
- Take your children grocery shopping with you. Let them find the items on your list. Letting them help is a great way to get them involved. Also, you can have them choose the snacks they want by giving them a choice of two to three healthy snacks. By letting them choose, you are putting them in control of what goes in their bodies. While you shop, talk about the different choices available to them and what they like. You can also talk about where some of the foods come from and how the food gets to the store.
- Let them help you prepare meals. Getting children involved in the preparation process can sometimes prompt them to eat better at the table. They have had a hand in preparing the meal so they are more apt to want to eat something they made themselves (or helped to make). You can have them help by counting, sorting or washing. Keep in mind that this is also a good opportunity to talk about the importance of washing and food safety but in terms they can understand. Children want to know about their world. The more you can share with them, the better understanding they will have. When you let your child help prepare a meal, you also give them a better understanding of what goes into making the meal.
- Eat a family meal together. It doesn't have to be dinner; it could be lunch, breakfast or a snack. Eating together allows for time to relax, reflect and share. When families sit down together for a meal, it opens up the opportunity to share and discuss all sorts of things. You can talk about who helped make what dish you are eating and how they helped. Letting them share and tell each other how they helped prepare the meal gives them a sense of importance.
There are many different ways to encourage a child to have healthy eating habits. Keeping things simple for a child, offering choices, talking about good eating habits, and practicing the methods you are trying to teach will show your child that eating right is important. Even if you use only one of these ideas, your child will still learn by the ideals you have put in place.