It’s important to many parents to find ways to get their kids to eat healthy—whether they have toddlers, young children, or teenagers. Healthy eating can improve energy level and focus, and even smooth out the moods of children and teens. If you’re looking for some easy strategies to improve your child’s eating habits, here are a few ways to make mealtimes healthier—and more pleasant—for your entire family.
Have regular family meals. Having a regular time for you and your children to eat together gives structure and predictability to the day. It is a chance for everyone to sit down together and catch up. Be sure to serve a variety of foods, such as lean meats and other sources of protein such as fish, eggs, and beans, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Aim for at least five total servings of fruits and vegetables a day. If you can, catch a few moments together in the morning for breakfast before the school day starts. Dinner time is another great opportunity for the family to gather and share what happened during the day. If you don’t have time to cook, bring in prepared food—the structure of mealtime together is what’s important for you and your children. It emphasizes the importance of food and mealtimes for your children.
Get kids involved in the process. Your children may be more open to trying a new food (especially a fruit or vegetable) if they get to pick it out at the store.Children really enjoy going to the supermarket, selecting what goes in the cart, and helping to pack up and unpack the food items. The supermarket is also a good place for children to understand the nutritional values of different foods and, for older children, to learn to read the nutrition labels on foods. Children of all ages enjoy helping with cooking, from gathering ingredients, to reading recipes, to helping with the cooking process. Children are much more invested in eating something if they have helped to make the food. Older children will also enjoy giving input on what is packed for school lunches or what to prepare for dinner.
Make mealtime fun for the whole family. When you are planning meals, make sure to present a variety of foods in an attractive manner. Colorful dips and sauces may help to encourage your children to eat more fruits and vegetables, and fruit can be arranged on a kebab for a fun treat. Food can also be cut into unusual shapes and arranged in a fun manner on the plate to increase acceptance. If your child does not eat a certain food the first time, do not give up—children’s tastes continue to change over time. Just because your child does not love broccoli the first time, it doesn’t mean he or she will never eat it in the future. Make sure to try it again at a later time and perhaps prepare it a different way. Another great way to encourage your children to eat well is to eat well yourself! Kids follow their parents’ leads, so by maintaining a well-balanced diet and showing that you care about eating healthy, you send a message to your children that healthy eating is important for our minds and bodies.
By encouraging healthy eating habits now, you can make a positive impact on your children’s relationships with food and give them the tools they need to develop into healthy, confident, teens and adults.
Dr. Lisa Kotler is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and the medical director of the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center-New Jersey Office in Hackensack, NJ. She has extensive experience working with children, adolescents, and adults with eating disorders and obesity in addition to anxiety and mood disorders and ADHD.