As the biggest “candy day” of the year creeps up on us, I felt it was an opportune time to reflect on how parents CAN foster healthy eating habits the rest of the year. (*And, speaking of candy, you can foster healthy habits and a teach your child the joy of giving back by participating in Kinderberry Hill’s 6th Annual Halloween Candy Drive to benefit US Troops. Drop off unwanted candy at any location before Nov. 4, and your child will receive a healthy and fun gift bag! For more information, visit www.kinderberryhill.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Halloween_CandyDrive_Poster-FINAL.pdf
Like many of you, I have a rather particular little eater at my house. He is almost four years old and prefers chicken, yogurt, grapes . . . and that’s just about it! Though I know it is common for young children to have limited food preferences, I can still support him in developing healthy eating habits with these simple tips.
Invite Children into the Kitchen:
Parents spend so much time planning, shopping, and cooking for their families. Let your children be part of this process. Ask them for input on your weekly meal planning, though you probably already know what they will request. 😉 Add their suggestions to the menu when you can or bring them grocery shopping and encourage them to help you select a favorite fruit for breakfast or the perfect green pepper for Wednesday night’s chili.
Invite your child to help prepare family meals. Children will love being included and can be very helpful! Let them do simple tasks such as washing vegetables or plucking grapes from the bunch. This gives them ownership and pride over the meal. Take time to gather tools specifically for your child to use in the kitchen. Child-sized aprons, a pair of children’s scissors, plastic butter knives, and a small selection of cookie cutters are a few of our family’s favorites. These items are generally safe and require minimal supervision. Children’s scissors can be used to cut fresh herbs, spaghetti noodles, dice chicken, etc. and you’ll be amazed by how enticing sliced cheese and ham sandwiches become with the magic of a cookie cutter!
Give Children the Power:
As long as we offer healthy menu items, we can relax and let children explore foods as they wish. As parents, our job is to decide “when”, “where”, and “what” we serve our children . . . their job is to decide “how much” and “if”. This can be very challenging for parents. Our fears rise, (at times, myself included!) “What if he NEVER learns to eat anything but yogurt?!?” Take a step back and trust your little one to move at his own pace towards food acceptance. He will do this more quickly with the opportunity to choose freely from a variety of healthy options.
Next, we need to resist rewarding with sweets or asking for more bites. When we do this, we are encouraging children to disregard their own body cues and preferences. Instead, we want them to learn to listen to their bodies and acknowledge when they feel full or no longer want specific food. This can actually help decrease overeating tendencies later in life.
Offer your child a variety of new foods, but know it may take many exposures for him to want to taste them. Be sure to serve new items alongside a familiar/favorite dish. This will limit hunger later in the day, as well as the “mealtime meltdown” that can occur when children come to the table very hungry, but see nothing they want to eat. Incorporate small serving dishes so children can fill their own plates. Again, this further supports them in being able to decide “how much” and “if”. (My little guy will often place exactly three peas on his plate. So far, I’ve never seen him eat one, but if I’m patient enough, one of these days, I believe he finally will!)
Mealtimes are so much more than food!
Research suggests eating together as a family, even just a few times each week, promotes healthier eating habits in children. Make your mealtimes full of laughter and lively conversation, with the focus on connecting as a family. Turn off TV and cell phones and simply talk. Choose topics everyone can participate in. Even young toddlers want to be included in family discussions and they truly do have much to say. Try to engage your children with lots of questions and shared opinions. After all, even monster trucks and “Pet the Cat” can produce exceptional dinner conversation, given the right guests! Occasionally, spice up mealtimes by adding soft music, decorative napkins, tablecloths, or even dimmed lighting. These little “extras” simply make the mealtime experience special for the entire family.
One final mealtime tip . . . if you choose to serve dessert, it should be enjoyed by all family members. Proposing to withdraw a favorite part of a meal or specific menu item increases children’s anxiety around mealtime. Instead, simply choose a dessert you feel is healthy enough to be eaten, regardless of how much other food is consumed. (An occasional dessert at our house is graham crackers with cream cheese. My little food critic is more than welcome to enjoy this with the rest of us . . . even if he still has those three peas sitting on his plate.) 🙂