Promoting Healthy Food Habits

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Jun 17, 2015

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Many parents put a plate full of food in front of their children and expect them to eat it all without complaint. That’s not realistic, and meal times are often a struggle for both parents and children. But if you promote healthy food habits from the time children are very young, it’s easier to get them to eat healthy when they’re older and more finicky. Here are some tips on how to do so.

Let kids feed themselves.

Children as young as one often reach for the spoon you’re using to feed them. Some kids may want to just play with it, but some actually want to feed themselves. Most parents don’t allow it because we don’t want them to spill or make a mess. But if your child is using the spoon to try to feed himself, let it happen. Kids will enjoy meals more because eating doesn’t feel forced and they feel in control. This also helps develop important skills over time, such as hand-eye coordination. Letting kids feed themselves is the start of healthy food habits in children.

Of course, if your child takes two bites on her own and then puts the spoon down, you should allow her to eat with her hands or continue to feed her. But don’t stop her from making the first attempt herself. Just be prepared that until her hand-eye coordination improves, meal time is going to be messy.

Don’t force feed.

We often make the mistake of feeding a child according to an adult’s appetite, or what we think is a child’s appetite. Children know better, and if he turns his face away when you’re feeding him, then stop; don’t force him to eat more. No child likes being hungry, so if yours is refusing to eat more, it means he is full.

Take small quantities of food in a bowl (you can always refill it) and, once finished, compliment the child, drawing attention to the empty bowl. The next time your child eats, he will finish the food in order to see the empty bowl and get that pat on the back. Don’t worry that he’s not getting enough to eat; he’ll definitely tell you if he is still hungry.

Change your own eating habits.

Children learn behaviour from observing people around them. If you want your children to eat healthy, you have to eat healthy as well. This is very important because children understand when rules are different for them and their parents. If your children are forbidden from eating biscuits or fried foods while you are snacking on those exact foods, they’ll stubbornly want to eat the treats as well. Indulge in your favorite samosas when they’re asleep or at school, but as a general rule, you need to adopt a healthy diet so that your children do as well.

Don’t make sweets and chocolates the enemy.

Children love eating chocolates, and family and friends are always bringing over delicious treat for them to enjoy. You can’t check their bags at the door, so accept that your children are going to indulge their sweet tooth. This doesn’t mean you let them run rampant with sweets; designate a specific time for treats and then—follow through. For instance, make a rule that your kids will get a piece of chocolate after they finish lunch or dinner. This isn’t a bribe, but a learnt behavior; children know they will get their treat after they finish their food, so they’re definitely going to finish. It’s important that you keep your promise for it to be a win-win situation.

Keep trying new foods.

You’d love for your children to eat the right balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates at every meal, but that’s highly unlikely to happen regularly. If they have had their fill of dal for lunch, they may not want to eat more of it at dinner. You can substitute by feeding them another protein, such as tofu or chicken. If they don’t want to eat anything except roti and dahi for dinner, it’s okay. Just make sure they get a slightly bigger glass of milk, which is high in protein, the next morning.

By giving your children a variety of different foods, you ensure they get a balanced diet. There’s a risk that they might not like something new, but you won’t know until you try.

Make meal times a pleasant experience.

Children are very quick to form associations, so it’s important to make meal times enjoyable and not stressful. Don’t yell at them or make them cry, but put on some music or nursery rhymes that they can listen to while eating. You can even make a game or story out of the food to get them excited about eating it. If every meal is a battle, then the idea of meal time will be traumatic and your child will not want to eat. Give your kids good memories to associate with meal times so that they’ll look forward to eating.

There is no one formula to instill healthy food habits in children, because every child is different. Make sure that eating is not a chore for them, and allow an occasional indulgence. It’s absolutely okay if they eat the unhealthy foods once in a while—just make sure they’re eating healthily more often.

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Written By Ratnaraje Krishna Thar

Ratnaraje Krishna Thar, PhD, MSc. MPhil Foods Nutrition and Dietetics, is a nutritionist with a strong academic and research background, and twenty five years of experience in nutrition. She has presented research papers at national and international level, and has been active in community nutrition projects in Mumbai as well as rural and tribal areas of Maharashtra. She currently serves as faculty at Sophia Women’s Research Centre, a Nutritionist at Natural Health Centre for Better Health in Mumbai, a consultant with the Bay View Advisory Services Team and Shrimati Malati Dahanukar Trust, and handles clinical cases. She is currently working on developing a Nutrition app that will provide easy access to basic nutrition information.

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