Encouraging Healthy Eating Habits in Children

Working toward positive eating habits as a family can set children up for a healthier future.

Children between the ages of 2 and 18 years should consume less than six teaspoons of added sugar per day, according to the American Heart Association. That’s about 25 grams. Yet children in the US consume roughly 16% of their daily caloric intake from added sugars alone, while missing out on the vitamin-packed foods they need in order to support their growing bodies.

The abundance of added sugar coupled with foods that are low in nutrition and additional complications with less-than-ideal eating habits can make for a real challenge. It can be difficult to guide your child to healthy habits to begin with, and even more so if you’re welcoming an older child, who may already have developed certain food preferences or dislikes, into your family. Thankfully, with some know-how, enthusiasm and patience, you can help instill healthy eating habits in children of all ages.

Opt for Healthy Sugar

Everyone knows that kids love sweets. This is thought to be a trait of evolution that causes children to seek out sources of food high in sugar to fuel their rapid growth, as well as sustain the body during times of famine. Excess sugar, however, can lead to a number of health issues.

It’s true that sugar is sugar, but the source of that sugar is what really makes a difference. Healthy fruit and veggie smoothies, for example, have natural sugars, but they also contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals and fiber - while still being low in calories. A serving of cookies, on the other hand, will have just as much (if not more) sugar, while offering little to no nutrition.

To encourage your kids to eat more nutrient-dense sweets, let them choose their own fruits to try, and spend some time looking around the produce section - it’s a great learning opportunity. Swap out traditional store-bought sweets with healthier, homemade varieties. You can bake a variety of cakes, cookies and other treats using healthier ingredients, like applesauce instead of table sugar.

Science Develop Natural Portion Control

Excess sugar isn’t the only issue when it comes to dietary concerns. Overeating has become an increasing problem among Americans, children included. While there are a number of contributors, often overeating is the result of eating too quickly. The stomach needs time to process and send information to the brain to let it know that it’s full.

The hustle of modern life can lead to rushed mealtimes, which can mean eating more food than necessary because the body hasn’t had time to communicate that it doesn’t need any more. For this reason, it’s important to help children develop natural portion control by eating slowly. Make a point of having relaxed, no-rush meals together as a family.

Not only does this help digestion and allow for the natural ‘full’ mechanism of the stomach to work, but it’s a great way to spend time together and actively communicate with your children.

Don't "Diet"

Though it’s important to encourage healthy eating choices, it’s equally important not to implement a strict, rigid diet for children. Children need to develop both healthy bodies and healthy minds, and an over-concentration on a specific diet or weight/size goal can negatively impact a child’s self-esteem. When healthy eating meets moderation, there’s no need for restriction. It’s best to guide your children rather than dictate their food choices.

Perhaps the best bit of advice when it comes to instilling healthy habits in children is to lead by example. Show your kids it’s important to eat healthily by doing so yourself, and make it a family affair.