The American Heart Association recommends taking a positive approach that gets your children more involved and invested in their food choices, so that the decision to eat healthier comes from them, not you.
At one time or another, you’ve surely heard this cry from the backseat as you’re driving past a familiar fast-food outlet: “Mom, can we stop here? Please?” Or as you’re passing the bakery department in your local supermarket: “Mom, can we get chocolate cake? Please?”
Your instinct is to make your children happy, but you also know about consequences. Obesity and poor nutrition, after all, are an alarming trend among children, causing a broad range of health issues that previously weren’t seen until adulthood. More and more young people get a large portion of their calories from fast food and sugary soft drinks, while neglecting nutrient-rich foods that aid in healthy development. Based on current trends, today’s children could be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents.
It’s not too late to change. The American Heart Association recommends taking a positive approach that gets your children more involved and invested in their food choices, so that the decision to eat healthier comes from them, not you.
Eight Ways to Help Children Eat Better
1. Be a good role model. “Do as I say” won’t work. If, for example, your child catches you polishing off a box of doughnuts, any rule you attempt to impose about healthy eating will only confuse and frustrate her. “Do as I do,” however, works. If that same child sees you eating nutritious snacks like an apple, carrots, or fat-free yogurt, she will be more likely to do the same.
2. Get them involved. Let children play an active role in cooking and planning meals. Engage them in conversation about what makes certain ingredients better for them than others. Let younger children perform simple, low-risk tasks around the kitchen, gradually increasing their responsibilities as they get older.
3. Cook smarter. Show your children how their favorite foods can be prepared healthier, while holding on to great taste. For example, chicken nuggets can be made with chicken breast trimmed of fat, seasoned, and coated in whole-grain breadcrumbs and natural cornflakes, then baked instead of fried.
4. Set the parameters, but offer choices. Choose the time and place for meals and snacks. Tell children about the types of foods and beverages to be served, giving them a few options within that menu. Let them choose how much they’d like to eat, within an acceptable range of portion sizes appropriate for their age.
5. Bring everyone to the table. When the entire family dines together, there’s less chance of children eating the wrong foods or snacking too much.
6. Make a game of reading food labels. If your children join you while food shopping, test and reward their skill in identifying the appropriate levels of saturated fats, sodium, and other important nutrition information on food product labels.
7. Speak up. Contact your child’s school and insist on smart food choices. Let day-care providers and babysitters know about what you want your child to eat.
8. Keep it positive. Children don’t like to hear what they can’t do. Instead, let them know what they can do, in terms of looking and feeling their best. When they make good choices, offer praise and healthy rewards like extra playtime — not video games, extra TV time, or candy.
Cooking for Young Ones
These guidelines benefit not just children, but the entire family!
- Serve vegetables and fruits — fresh, frozen, or canned — at every meal; be careful with added sauces and sugar.
- Use only lean cuts of meat and reduced-fat meat products; remove the skin from poultry before eating.
- Eat more legumes (beans) and tofu in place of meat for some entrées.
- Cook with canola, soybean, corn oil, safflower oil, or other unsaturated oils.
- Regularly serve fish as an entrée.
- Eat whole grain breads and cereals — look for “whole grain” as the first ingredient on the food label of these products.
- When buying breads, breakfast cereals, or prepared foods such as soups, choose high-fiber, low-salt, and low-sugar alternatives.
- Serve water, low-fat or fat-free nonflavored milk, and no-sugar-added fruit juices.
Get Them Moving
Healthy eating is only part of the story. Physical activity — at least 30 to 60 minutes a day — is just as important. Plan times for the whole family to get moving together, whether it’s taking walks, riding bikes, swimming, or just playing hide-and-seek outside. Instead of allowing children to sit for hours watching TV or playing video games, encourage them to try outdoor activities they might enjoy, from playing hopscotch to walking the dog to jumping rope.