They say that it’s easier to build girls and boys than it is to repair women and men, and this adage is true even for eating healthily. Many of the habits your children will carry with them for the rest of their lives will start in their formative years, and now is the best time to start instilling healthy eating habits that they can maintain into their teen years and adulthood.
If your kids are picky eaters or have health problems that require them to improve their nutrition, here are some tips for encouraging and motivating them to consume healthier food options.
Get to the root of their unhealthy eating
If you see them binging on unhealthy snacks and you snap at them, they will more than likely feel shame and condemnation for their choices instead of understanding why you were upset in the first place. Children don’t have the same psychological tools that adults do; if they’re upset, they’re much more likely to look for self-soothing tools to comfort themselves, and for many children, that includes emotional eating.
Start from a place of gentleness. Ask them to help mommy or daddy understand why they always love reaching for chocolates and chips, or if there’s anything that’s making them feel upset. Of course, it’s also possible they’re not really doing some emotional eating, and they just love the taste of unhealthy snacks; but whatever the reason, get to the bottom of it so you can help address it.
Consult with health professionals
If your children are overweight, or if they have health issues that require them to eat more healthily, consider consulting with your family’s primary care provider or with some reliable nutritionists near you. Licensed dietitians and nutritionists are trained to help patients achieve their goals in the most sustainable and efficient ways, and they are equipped to provide you and your family with meal plans and options that meet your health needs, lifestyle, and objectives. Some services they provide include:
- Weight loss
- Chronic disease management (diabetes, cholesterol, hypertension, and others)
- Eating disorders
- Pediatric nutrition
- Sports nutrition
- Renal disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Vegan or vegetarian
Before doing some major changes to your family’s meals and diet, make sure you consult with a health professional first. You never know if you or any of your family members have a condition that requires special attention, and a drastic change to your diet may not provide the help you need.
Replace unhealthy foods with healthy ones
It’s not enough to take away unhealthy foods and snacks that your children love; you need to replace them with viable alternatives—healthier options that don’t taste bland. Here are some healthy snack alternatives that still have amazing flavors:
- Mixed nuts
- Cantaloupe with prosciutto
- Red bell pepper with guacamole
- Sun-dried tomatoes
- Greek yogurt topped with mixed berries
- Apple slices with peanut butter
- Canned sardines or salmon
- Cottage cheese with cinnamon and flax seeds
- Celery sticks dipped in cream cheese
- Protein shakes
- Kale chips
- Cherry tomatoes with mozzarella
- Almonds and dark chocolate
- Cucumber slices dipped in hummus
Encouraging healthy eating among your family is not so much about planning meals, but more about strengthening family ties. Here are some practical steps you can take to do this:
- Make sure you always eat meals together as a family and make it a time of pleasant conversation, laughter, and open sharing, not a time for nagging or arguing. Discourage them from having meals in front of the TV or any device.
- Invite your children to be part of grocery shopping and meal prepping. It will help them mold their palate, and it will give you a keen insight into their preferences.
- Set goals together as a family. If your kids see that their parents are also committed to eating healthily, it will incentivize them to do better, as well.
- Don’t use food as a weapon for punishment or a tool for reward. A study found that when we withhold food from kids as a form of punishment, they will grow to worry that they will never have enough food; not to mention it can be considered child abuse. At the same time, if you use ice cream as an incentive for them to finish their vegetables, they will get the wrong idea and message about veggies.
When it comes to encouraging your kids to build healthy eating habits, you cannot start early enough. Be gentle and kind while guiding them through it, make the same choices for yourself and your partner, and watch your kids enjoy healthier food options.