Mealtimes with kids can often be stressful for parents who have a desire to instill healthy eating habits in their children but come up against obstacles such as picky eaters, food ruts, attitudes, or fits, which then often cause parents to respond in frustration—furthering chaos at the dinner table.
The choice to start actively encouraging kids to move towards healthier eating does take time and consistency, and it won’t happen overnight, but mealtimes don’t have to be a battleground, and there are ways that parents can encourage healthy eating habits for kids at home without making mealtime a stressful event, even when dealing with kids who are set in their ways.
Here are some ways to help encourage healthy eating habits at home:
Decide to remove anger and frustration from mealtimes.
When parents get angry and frustrated with their kids, it triggers a stress response in their children to fight, shut down, or withdraw, and it shuts down their ability to learn and cooperate. This then creates a power struggle and can turn healthy eating into a battle of wills instead of simply trying to encourage kids to make good choices. It’s not worth ruining your relationship with your kids over food.
Choosing to keep a calm and peaceful demeanor toward kids during mealtimes will help keep them more open and receptive to trying new foods over time. When children observe that mealtimes are no longer a source of frustration for mom or dad, they will be more likely to change their eating habits.
Lead by example.
Kids learn by observing the adults around them and are more likely to make healthy food choices if they see their parents making healthy food choices. It’s also important for parents to model healthy eating behaviors by not skipping meals, not eating in front of the television, and not overeating.
Talking about the vegetables being eaten and the benefits they give by saying things like “Eating carrots helps give good eyesight.” or “Spinach helps grow strong muscles.” as you’re eating them, will also help kids to make the connection between healthy food and healthy bodies.
Involve kids in food preparation.
When kids are involved in choosing healthy foods, washing vegetables, or helping to cook a meal, they are more likely to eat healthy foods.
It’s also helpful to involve kids in the decision-making process when it comes to healthy eating. Asking them what healthy foods they would like to eat for snacks or meals, and giving them a few healthy choices to choose from will help them feel empowered and more likely to eat healthy foods.
Have healthy foods available.
If healthy foods are easily accessible, kids are more likely to eat them. Keep healthy snacks such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grain crackers, low-fat yogurt, and cheese on hand and within reach. Make sure to limit or remove sugary snacks and unhealthy junk food so that healthy snacks are the easier choice for kids.
Sit down to eat as a family.
When families eat together, children observe their parents eating nutritious foods and, if their kids assisted in the cooking, their self-esteem may be enhanced by knowing that they helped prepare it. It also builds safety in connection with each other, and that safe feeling creates a more conducive environment for children to develop healthier eating habits and to associate healthy eating habits with a positive experience.