12 Tips for Teaching Kids to Eat Better

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on January 12, 2011 · 0 comments

Are you dealing with dinner antics, food jags, and meal standoffs with your children? You’re not alone—every parent has had to deal with difficult eating habits. And that’s totally normal. As they grow, kids want control over what they eat because it’s part of the normal separation process. But conflicts over food can escalate, if you let them. How to cope? Stay calm, hold on to your sense of humor, and try these 12 tips for tacking tricky eaters.

  1. Encourage but don’t force your child to try new foods. Children often need to be exposed to a food many times before they’ll eat it.
  2. Don’t worry about how little your child eats. If growth is normal, he’s eating enough. Overeating is never a good habit; there is no virtue in belonging to the clean plate club.
  3. Don’t classify foods as “good-for-you” or bad-for-you.” All foods, eaten in moderation—even sweets and treats—are fine.
  4. Don’t use food as a pacifier, reward or punishment. This puts an emotional value on food that will be hard to break and can set the stage for poor eating behaviors in the future.
  5. Teach your child to eat a colorful plate. This automatically offers different kinds of foods with a selection of different nutrients.
  6. Make whole grains, vegetables and fruits the foundation of your child’s diet. These foods are naturally high in vitamins, minerals, fiber and health-promoting phytochemicals, and low in fat.
  7. Teach children that foods with a face – animal foods – should be eaten in moderation. These foods are higher in saturated fat and cholesterol.
  8. Demonstrate the ‘napkin test’ – place French fries, fried chicken or a doughnut on a napkin and watch the grease ring grow. High fat foods should be eaten “less often.”
  9. Keep portions small. Small stomachs need small servings offered frequently. Let your child ask for more rather than encouraging her to eat too much.
  10. Plan dessert as part of the meal and don’t withhold it if your child eats very little. But, offer only one small serving of dessert. Don’t make ice cream the food you get after you eat your spinach.
  11. A sweet treat every so often, is just fun. Withholding foods or being too strict about sweets gives them too much attention and makes them more desirable. We all want what we can’t have. Instead of forbidding, offer reasonable amounts – a chocolate kiss instead of chocolate bar or a handful of chips instead of a bagful.
  12. Children learn by example. Make good eating a family affair.
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