Simple Ways to Encourage Kids to be Healthy Eaters
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We all want to find ways to help our kids develop healthy eating habits for life.
We could spend hours sifting through research to find the “best” ways to encourage our kids to choose healthy foods.
But guess what? I’m here to tell you the best way is the way that actually works!
Just as there is no “right” way to parent, let's shift our thinking and agree that any small, sustainable way we can make wellness work within our day-to-day life is the right way for our family.
Here are some go-to "best practice" ideas I’ve gathered over years of helping parents, teachers, and childcare centers shape our next generation of health conscious, mindful eaters. They might not all resonate with your family, but many are well worth giving a try!
Remember to make meal time FAMILY time.
F - Focus on your plate
A - Use alternative, non-food rewards
M -Model good mealtime behavior
I - Make healthy choices interesting
Y - Practice "Your choice"
FOCUS ON YOUR PLATE
This one can be challenging if we are struggling with our own food choices. However, the biggest thing that has helped our kids want to eat their veggies is that it’s what they see my husband and I consistently do. It's pretty cute when my son wants to crunch on carrots, nuts, and cucumbers like his daddy!
Protein shakes are extra yummy when you get to eat it right out of the blender with mom!
To reinforce role modeling, we can help our kids understand why we eat and do what we do to live a healthy, energetic life. My husband and I like to mention how excited we are to eat healthy foods so we can run fast, be strong, and have amazing energy to do all the fun things we love like hike, bike, and play at the park.
This is one of the most simple concepts, with the strongest influence. What do you do each day to live well? Live by example and openly share your logic for your healthy habits with your kids.
USE ALTERNATIVE, NON-FOOD REWARDS
I don’t know about you, but I grew up with sugary snacks and desserts as rewards for good grades and being on my best behavior. We now know that using food as a reward can cause confusion about healthy choices, encourage the consumption of non-nutritious calories, and teach kids to eat when they aren’t hungry. According to Action for Healthy Kids, “One study found that every separate food-related practice (e.g., a food incentive or reward) that promotes low-nutrition foods in a school is associated with a 10% increase in students’ body mass indexes (BMI).” Put simply, our kids deserve better. So how can we break this outdated parenting trend?
Alternative ways to show our love include rewarding with new experiences, favorite activities, and special privileges. Check out this tip sheet for additional healthy reward ideas.
MODEL GOOD MEALTIME BEHAVIOR
Here are some mealtime behaviors shown to positively influence kids' eating habits:
Sit at the table together, aiming to enjoy pleasant conversation and keep stress low.
Keep any negative experiences or feelings about healthy foods to yourself. This is one of my biggest pet peeves so I post this tip in my kitchen as a reminder for anyone who may be dining with my kiddos. If you "hate" broccoli there is no reason to share that with my kids, thank you!
Encourage positive language. Keep in mind it can take over ten times of being exposed to a new food before a kid may acquire a taste for it. When faced with my son having an especially selective day we encourage him to take at least one "adventure bite" and use polite language by saying “no thank you” instead of “yuck.” We make sure to offer the food next time, ignoring the fact he previously “didn’t like it.”
As our son once said, “I have returned to the avocado!”
Show your kids you are willing to try new and different foods (especially fruits and vegetables) and mention some of the benefits that make you want to try it.
MAKE HEALTHY CHOICES INTERESTING
Did you know there are scientists who study how to most effectively improve kids’ selection and consumption of healthy foods?
Behavioral Economists from Cornell University’s Smarter Mealtimes Movement found that children were nearly three times as likely to select vegetables when they had a sticker or logo on it. If you have extra picky eaters it just might just be worth encouraging them to try new vegetables by pairing them with stickers. Another great takeaway from this research is when healthy food choices are paired with fun names, such as “Pirate’s Pick Gold Corn,” consumption was increased by over 30%. Even something as generic as “Wyatt’s Special Dinner” has worked in our house!
Here are some ways we can make healthy choices fun and interesting to get real results:
Make the same old healthy snacks new and fun by serving them in colorful dishes or cutting them into shapes.
Encourage kids to create new healthy snacks, like choosing different greens and fruit to blend and freeze into popsicle molds, or ingredients to use in homemade protein bars or trail mix.
Pair healthy foods with “special” cups or bowls. My son and daughter actually fight over my husband’s green smoothie when it’s served in a shot glass. Let’s put it this way, even I don’t want to eat that much blended kale but something about those tiny glasses gets my kids begging for more!
PRACTICE "YOUR CHOICE"
One of the best tips I’ve heard is to make sure kids are a part of the full mealtime experience, from grocery shopping to the table and clean up. A way to encourage our kids to actually enjoy the healthy meals we prepare is to involve them in our food decisions.
A way our family has put this into practice is before grocery shopping for the week we ask our son what he’d like on the menu. That way, when it comes to some of our meals he knows it was his choice and he’s legitimately excited for it. Younger kids may need to be given some ideas, as to avoid a "paralysis by over-analysis" moment. For my son’s birthday meal I provided a few suggestions of homemade pizza, a zoodle dish, or fish tacos.
Homemade pizza loaded with his favorite veggies it was!
Troubleshoot: Is your family trying to slowly eat healthier and it’s not exactly an easy transition?
It may be useful to not mention if you’re using a new, healthy ingredient or if you changed to a healthier brand. Sometimes healthy transitions are best left without explanation until it becomes a regular favorite food.
If you are still with me and reading this article I'll assume you really want to influence your kids to eat well. I'm going to personally challenge you, as a parent, to think outside the box with me.
Can we challenge the status quo of naming healthier options we create at home as if they were still unhealthy foods? My husband and I started to reverse our habits after discussing the concept of our homemade “fries.” Our children have never had a fast food or restaurant fry, so why would we call our baked sweet potatoes slices “fries?” Does it make sense to call our extra thick protein shakes "ice cream" or to buy our plant based proteins in the shape of a "nugget" if our goal is to encourage our kids to choose healthier options when available?
Let's face it, although we take the time to educate our kids as to why we cook foods certain ways and why certain foods are better choices than others, our message may not always sink in. When our son finds himself in the school cafeteria we want him to be empowered with knowledge and set up for the best success possible. So, it's now our goal to not send mixed messages about which foods will promote good health, abundant energy, and fight disease. I've written before about still enjoying treats, but today my message is that intentional and consistent nutrition education matters. Food for thought?
So where will you go from here? Which tips are you going to try? Change doesn't happen over night, but each proactive step we take can slowly start to shift our family habits.
Let's come together, share what works for us, and support one another on our journeys. Be sure to subscribe to the blog below and check out all of Team Valentine Project's wellness content on Facebook and Instagram!
Together, we can take small steps that create a resilient foundation of health and happiness.