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It's hard enough trying to get adults to eat healthy these days. So the challenge of getting kids to eat healthy meals may seem nearly impossible. Fortunately, there are some gentle ways parents can nudge their kids toward more healthful eating habits. Here are a few thoughts from nationally known nutrition experts on how to get kids to go from being picky eaters to people with sound, varied diets.
Avoid a Mealtime Power Struggle
One of the surest ways to win the battle but lose the war is to engage in a power struggle with your child over food, says Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE, author of The Parent's Toolshop. With power struggles, you're saying, "Do it because I'm the parent" and that's a rationale that won't work for long, she says. But if your child understands the why behind the rules, those values can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of sound food choices.
Let Kids Participate
Get a step stool and ask your kids to lend a hand with easy tasks in the kitchen, says Sal Severe, PhD, author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too. "If they participate in helping to make the meal, they are more likely to want to try it," he says.
Dr. Severe reminds parents that, more often than not, kids under 5 are going to be selective eaters. "Being selective is actually normal," says Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD. She prefers the term "limited eater" to the more negative term "picky."
Build on the Positives
"When I sit down with parents, we'll often find that their child actually does eat two or three things from each food group," says Ward. Just as children can get comfort from reading the same story over and over, they enjoy having a set of "predictable" foods. "Even though they aren't getting a wide variety of foods, they are actually doing OK nutritionally," says Ward. When the child goes through a growth spurt and has a bigger appetite, use that opportunity to introduce new foods, she recommends.
Expose, Expose, Expose
Ward says a child needs to be exposed to a new food 10 to 15 times before he or she will accept it. But many parents give up long before that. So, even if your child only plays with the strawberry on her plate, don't give up. One day, she just may surprise you by taking a bite. But don't go overboard, says Severe. Limit exposure to one or two new foods a week.
Avoid using sweets as a bribe to get kids to eat something else, says Pawel. That can send the message that doing the right thing should involve an external reward. The real reward of sound nutrition is a healthy body, not a chocolate cupcake.
Beware of Over-snacking
Sometimes, the problem isn't that the child doesn't like new foods, but that they are already full, says Ward. "Kids can consume a lot of their calories as milk and juice." The same goes for snacks that provide little more than calories, such as chips, sweets, and sodas. "If you are going to offer snacks, make sure they are supplementing meals, not sabotaging them," she says.
Having a set of bottom-line limits can help a parent provide some consistency, says Pawel. For example, parents may require that kids eat nutritious foods before snack food or insist that kids must at least try a new food before rejecting it. "Consistency only works if what you are doing in the first place is reasonable," she says. So, avoid overly controlling or overly permissive eating rules. If bottom-line limits are healthy, effective, and balanced, they'll pay off.
Examine Your Role Model
Make sure you aren't asking kids to "do as I say, not as I do," says Pawel. If your own diet is based mainly on fat, sugar, and salt, you can hardly expect your child to embrace a dinner salad over French fries.
Don't make your child's eating habits part of the mealtime discussion, says Ward. Otherwise every meal becomes a stressful event, centered on what the child does and does not eat. Ward suggests that parents reserve talks about the importance of good eating for later, perhaps at bedtime or story time.
Give It Time
"I find that children become much more open to trying new foods after the age of 5," says Ward. "Most of the time, kids will simply grow out of limited eating."
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