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7 Proven Ways to Encourage Healthy Eating in Children That Really Work

Dinner time on weeknights is always a struggle between work and school; just getting something on the table is a challenge, let alone something healthy.

While it may not always be possible, I believe it is important for a family to sit down at a table and eat together. This is not only a time to nourish your body, but also reconnect.

When we sit down to a meal, especially with people that we love, it changes the chemistry in our body.

The smell of the food stimulates the hormone ghrelin, which helps to get all the digestive juices flowing. Our body relaxes and shifts out of sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest.)

This aids in digestion; meaning our body can reap all the benefits from the nutritious meal we just ate. Of course, if you are a parent with young children, mealtime is not often relaxing, but rather involves projectiles, complaints and sometimes a game of musical chairs.

Here are seven ways to encourage healthy eating in children to make mealtime more pleasant:

1. Lead by Example

You cannot pour from an empty cup. Raising children takes a lot of time and energy, as does cooking and preparing meals for them. In order to ensure that parents have enough energy and focus to do this, they must take care of their bodies.

Before we attempt to improve our child’s eating, we must first assess our own.

What can we first do to improve our relationship with food? This will not only improve our own health but also show our children the value in healthy eating.

Here are a few easy nutrition tips for busy parents:

  • Drink more water. This is an easy way to improve energy, focus and digestion
  • Eat when your children eat. Eating dinner earlier in the evening (and not after the kids go to bed) is better for digestion and sleep.
  • Make Smoothies: If you do not have time for a meal during the day, make a smoothie with some greens, protein and healthy fats to keep you going until you have time for a solid meal.

2. Avoid Hyper-palatable Foods

Your tastes (palate) develop and change over time, particularly in young children.

Hyper-palatable foods are processed foods that are overly sweet or salty. This includes candies, chips, and fast food. These foods have been designed to have lots of flavour and be addictive.

The more a child gets used to hyperpalatable flavours, the more home cooked food will taste bland and boring. I do believe in encouraging a healthy relationship with food for children. This means we should refrain from deeming certain foods to be bad or “taboo,” as this can create disordered eating later on. However, it is important for parents to be conscientious of this pattern.

Here are some ways to avoid junk foods without making it a big deal:

  • Make substitutes: Bake cookies instead of buying or buy healthier versions of packaged foods
  • Keep it out of the house: When my kids visit relatives, they eat what they want but at home it’s out of sight out of mind.
  • Don’t use food as a reward: We’re all guilty of this especially when out with children. An easy way to encourage a child to behave during appointments or running errands is with the promise of treat afterwards. This again gives certain foods this special status increasing their desire. Instead, offer time as the reward enjoying a meal together, a trip to the park or the toy store.
  • Avoid eating it yourself: Sorry, to say but kids follow our actions more than our commands. The best way to have your kids eat healthy is to lead by example.

3. Encourage Curiosity and Exploration

What if someone were to put a plate a food in front of you and say eat? You do not recognize the food, you were not told what it was, and you are unsure how it will taste and feel in your body. Now imagine you are not an adult with a full vocabulary and table manners. You may want to move it around with your fork, pick up the food, feel it, smell it and take small bites.

This is how a child feels when something new is put in front of them. So yes, we should allow children to play with food, to an extent at least. I draw the line at food throwing, or it being used as an artistic medium. You can start food exploration as early as six months.

However, there are other ways to encourage exploration and curiosity with food at any age. Allow them to touch the food, play with it and make it a game.

Have your kids pretend to be a dinosaur eating the broccoli trees. This is an old one, but I find it still works.

Involving a child with every aspect of the food preparation from grocery shopping, or gardening to preparation and cooking, is also important part of increasing their curiosity around food.

4. Allow Autonomy and Independence

A child usually starts being picky around two years of age, as this is the time when they want to establish their independence.

You will probably hear a lot of “me too’s” and “NO!” during this time.

Often refusing to eat is not about the food itself, but about control.

Here are some ideas on how to nourish a child’s growing autonomy around food:

  • 6 months – 24 months: Allow them to feed themselves. Most of my children fed themselves even as babies. However, there are specific ways to feed a baby solid food safely. Please look into safety with baby-led weaning if you choose this method.
  • 2 years and up: Allow each child to fill their own plate. You can help the younger toddlers, or use “hand over hand” to avoid a mess. This means they will only take as much as they want.
  • 5 years and up: Include them in meal planning and preparation. My two-and four-year-old are often responsible for making the salad and setting the table for dinner. While they still require my constant supervision, they enjoy making the salad dressing and I will often have them taste it to see if it needs more seasoning.
  • 10 years and up: Have them plan and prepare their own meal completely independently, or almost independently depending on age.

Of course, these are only suggestions, and the ages are approximate. Every child and every family are different and must find what works for them.

5. Address Sensory Issues

Eating is a sensory process. It requires all the senses to eat and for some children, this can be a sensory overload.

Food needs to not only have the right taste, but also the correct texture, temperature, look and it should be easy to pick up.

For a child, if one of these senses is off, they may not eat it.

So, next time your child refuses a food, ask yourself these questions:

  • How does it look? What colour is it? Is it homogenous? Does it have chunks?
  • How big is? Is it easy to pick up? Can I put it on a fork easily? Will it fall apart when I try to lift it?
  • How does it feel? Is it hot? Cold? Slimy? Dry?
  • What texture does it have? Is it easy to chew?
  • How does it taste? Is there an aftertaste?

All of these components of eating became apparent to me, watching my kids eat.

My daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, had many difficulties picking up and chewing food. Even today, she still cannot use cutlery independently. She reacts drastically to extreme temperatures. She doesn’t even like ice cream. She also used to refuse any foods that were green in colour, particularly salad, however recently she has become more interested in them (parenting win!).

My sons, who are both neurotypical but younger (2 & 4) also do not like certain textures. Particularly the texture of certain meat. For instance, they enjoy ground beef, but will refuse a steak if it is too tough to chew. For all children, I have found keeping foods smaller in bite-size pieces has led to more success. Biting into a falafel or meatball feels like less of a commitment than a large burger.

So, here are some tips for encouraging a pleasant sensory experience at mealtime:

  • Blend vegetables in sauces. We’re not trying to be sneaky (although I won’t tell if you don’t)
  • Make food into smaller bites. Meatballs over hamburger, smaller pasta over spaghetti, etc.
  • Keep colours neutral and consistent. I love greens, but cauliflower, beets, red pepper, carrots are also all healthy vegetables that can be incorporated more easily into meals.
  • Add a side of texture and crunch: We don’t want to only serve our kids mush and certainly don’t want to eat that ourselves. Have some nuts or hemp seeds that can be added on top of meals as an option, or some veggie sticks on the side.

6. Be Consistent

As parents, our goal is to raise healthy, well-rounded individuals. It is not about the broccoli a child eats today, but about the food they will eat for the rest of their lives.

All we can do is continue to offer healthy foods in a positive environment. In most cases, a child will not become malnourished by refusing foods.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and it is important to seek medical attention if you suspect your child is underweight, or not eating enough to sustain themselves. However, for the most part, children do eat enough food, just not as much or as healthy as we want them to eat.

The trap that we can fall into as parents with picky children is we reduce their food choices; less and less to avoid the battle of trying to get them to eat. However, as time goes on, we may find this food list shrinking even more. That is why it is important to continue offering the foods they don’t like, even if they won’t eat it.

Palates change over time; it can take over 15 times of tasting food to decide whether or not you like it.

The most important thing is to not let your child’s pickiness affect your food habits as well. So, make a salad, even if it’s just for you, eventually they may want some as well.

7. Stay Positive

Ever feel too stressed to eat?

Often adults will find they are not hungry during the day when they are busy. This is because the body is running on cortisol, our stress hormone. We often don’t feel like eating if we are under stress, and if we do want to eat, we want something with fast fuel (i.e., sugar, fast food or just caffeine.)

A child’s biochemistry is similar to an adult’s in that they will often not feel like eating when stressed. This is why it is important to keep mealtimes positive.

This is a good time to ask a child about their day, or talk about upcoming plans for the weekend. This removes some of the focus from what or how much your child is eating. While screens may be too distracting during mealtimes, some fun background music can lighten the mood.

If you as a parent are feeling stressed after a long day, take a few nice deep belly breaths before eating your meal.

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Certified Nutritionist Kirsten Colella is the mother of 3 young children.  Kirsten enjoys creating healthy meals and developing creative ways of serving them to her family. She shares her delicious recipes, colourful food pics and health-promoting food ideas on our Instagram page @essentialbalanceholistic .

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