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Healthy eating is an important lesson you can teach your children. The example you set is the best way to help your kids make smart food choices and to develop a positive relationship with food. Melinda Sothern, PhD, coauthor of Trim Kids and director of the childhood obesity prevention laboratory at Louisiana State University shares her "Top 10" tips for getting children to eat healthy foods.
1. Do Not Restrict Food
Never restrict foods. This can have a negative effect on growth and development, and it can also increase the risk of a child developing an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia later in life. Instead, emphasize the wide variety of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while avoiding processed and junk foods.
2. Keep Healthy Food at Hand
Kids tend to eat whatever is available and they can only eat what you keep in the house. Keep a bowl of fruit such as apples or bananas on the counter, and when you snack, have some fruit. "Your actions scream louder than anything you will ever tell them," says Sothern.
3. Don't Label Foods as "Good" or "Bad"
Don't label foods as "good" or "bad," instead try to connect them to things your child likes. Make sure they know that the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables will keep their hair shiny and their skin clear. Let them know that lean protein such as that in turkey breast, or the calcium in dairy products and non-dairy milk will help them stay strong for their soccer games. Encourage them to eat a healthy breakfast so they can stay focused in school.
4. Praise Healthy Choices
Always let your children know you are proud of them when they make healthy food choices. Praise them and let them know they made a smart choice when they opt for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
5. Don't Nag About Unhealthy Choices
Even though you praise healthy choices, kids are going to choose unhealthy foods sometimes. The best strategy is to ignore it. Opt instead for healthy versions of the foods they crave. Try roasting potato sticks tossed in a hint of oil in the oven as a substitute for French fries. Fresh strawberries dipped in a little dark chocolate can satisfy a sweet tooth, and dried fruits make great handy snacks to keep on hand.
6. Never Use Food as a Reward
Never use food as a reward. When food is used as a prize it can create weight problems and issues around food later in life. Instead, give your kids non-food rewards. The best kind involves fun physical activity, such as trips to the park, bike rides, or a game of catch.
7. Sit Down to Family Dinners at Night
Sitting down for family meals at night is a great way to bond as a family and make sure your children eat healthy dinners. Research has shown that children who eat dinners with their families eat more nutritious foods and are less likely to get in trouble as teenagers. If you don't eat together as a family, start with just one night a week and work up from there.
8. Prepare Plates in the Kitchen
Prepare plates for meals in the kitchen, not at the table. This way, you can ensure there are healthy portions on everyone's plates and this will help children learn correct portion sizes. You may also find it helps with your weight loss efforts too!
9. Give the Kids Some Control
Let your children have some control over the foods they eat and participate in the decision-making about what is served. Start by asking your children to take just three bites of all the foods on their plate, and grade them A to F, like in school. If a healthy food such as a vegetable gets a high grade, serve that item more often.
10. Consult Your Pediatrician
Consult your child's pediatrician before putting your child on a diet, whether the diet is to lose weight, gain weight, or is just a significant change from the foods your child is used to eating. Don't diagnose your child as being over or underweight on your own – always get a physician's recommendation.
It can be tough for kids to navigate their world with so many food choices. "It's all about gradual changes, it's not overnight, and it's an uphill battle for parents," Sothern tells WebMD. "Everything outside of the home is trying to make kids overweight. The minute they walk out of the home, there are people trying to make them eat too much and serving them too much." Teach them how to be smart about food at home, and they will learn lessons about healthy eating to last a lifetime.