When it comes to nutrition and healthy eating, making changes to the way your family eats can seem like a big task. Rethinking your approach to your family’s nutrition can make it easier to put everyone on the path to better eating.

The Experts

Katherine Shary, RD, LD, a registered dietitian with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life: A parent’s job is actually not to convince or get their child to eat anything, but to let the child have the opportunity to try foods at their own pace. We don’t want to pressure, force or bribe the child to eat something we think they should eat, as this can lead to disordered eating later in life. It takes 10-15 times of seeing a new food for a child to even be willing to try it. Kids get their nutrition from multiple meals throughout the week, so you do not have to force a specific food or meal on your child.

Caroline Burkholder, MS, RD, LD, a dietitian at RootED Nutrition and Counseling: Having structure in meal and snack times can really help. If meals and snacks are at set times every day, and kids state they are full, that’s totally fine. Gently remind them that food won’t be available again until the next meal or snack, and they will learn over time to self-regulate. The skill to identify hunger and fullness will serve your kids through their lifetimes.

Jennifer Hnat, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at Nutrition Atlanta: Mindful eating is a way of paying attention to everything around the eating experience: the environment, your internal hunger and fullness cues, how your food looks, tastes and sounds when you eat it. Are you enjoying the food you’re eating? Do you eat fast, take big bites, chew your food well? It’s paying attention with intention so that you can tune in to the wisdom of the body while you nourish it.

Consider Lifetime Habits

Adults, not just children, struggle with healthy eating habits. Changing eating behaviors as a family can start small and build as you go. Try not to get discouraged before you’ve even begun.

“People get wound up about what is right and wrong when it comes to nutrition,” Burkholder says. “At the end of the day, good nutrition comes down to three main principles: balance (pairing  multiple food groups together), variety (making sure to get a variety of different proteins, grains, fruits and vegetables) and consistency (eating on a regular schedule and not skipping meals).”

Shary says the balanced plate method can help with lifestyle changes, meaning half of the plate is fruits and vegetables, one-fourth is whole grains and one-fourth is protein. “You want your child to have healthy behaviors now and into adulthood,” she says. “Parents don’t have to do as much as they think they need to do at mealtimes. Provide the food, when and where, but leave everything else up to the child, including how much they eat and if they eat. This gives them the autonomy to decide how their body feels and will lead to a healthy, positive relationship for life with food.”

There will be times when you serve what you consider an “unhealthy” meal or run through a drive-thru for dinner. Don’t get discouraged about health when this happens.

“People think there are certain foods that are good and certain foods that are bad, but that isn’t  true. All foods have a place. If fast food is what gets dinner on the table one night and your child is fed, then you’re doing a great job,” Shary says. “You can switch out fries for fruit, try grilled nuggets instead of fried chicken, and grab a water instead of a sugary drink, but your child will not  remember every meal you serve them. They will remember enjoying meals together, laughing at the table and the safe and loving environment you provided for them.”

Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a Martha Stewart-level hostess to create and serve nutritious meals. It can be cute and fun to create a scarecrow out of fruits and veggies, carve a jack-o-lantern on an apple or hollow out a pumpkin to serve dip. But mostly, meals and snacks are an opportunity to create family memories.

“For the child most of the time, it’s not about the food – it’s about the connection,” Shary says. “It doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal. What they’re going to remember is that they laughed and had a good time, not that you put the food in cute muffin tins.”

Set an Example

As a parent, model healthy eating behaviors by having the same meal you serve your children, eating fruits and veggies, and drinking water.

You may have to unlearn some of your own unhealthy food behaviors to be a positive example.

“We want to neutralize the way we talk about food,” Burkholder says. “If we forbid sweets or play foods, then when kids go to school or friends’ houses, they will overvalue these items and overconsume them once they’re available. Don’t talk about foods being ‘bad’ or ‘off-limits.’ Exposing your children to diet talk can easily cause them to overvalue foods that are ‘off-limits’ and can set them up to develop destructive relationships with food.”

Step back and analyze your own behaviors surrounding food. Think about how you diet and how you can break the cycle to help yourself and your family.

“Be aware and mindful of the language you use around your children. Your relationship with food and your body trickles down to them,” Hnat says. “They are little sponges and listen to every word you say. Hopping on the latest diet trends has become so normalized that many of us don’t realize we’re doing it. We especially don’t realize the toxic impact it can have on our family. The best way to help your children with food and body confidence is to work on your own.”

This step may be easier to achieve with the help of a dietitian or nutritionist.

“Learning how to tune inward and listening to your body’s wisdom is the best health advice I could ever give,” Hnat says. She believes that as children, we naturally have a healthy relationship with food and know when we are hungry or full. “We are all born with this ability, and it gets distorted when we start to question our food choices or habits. Our home environment, social surroundings and family’s food beliefs have an impact on how we categorize and view food. If someone says that unprocessed food is ‘good’ or processed food is ‘bad,’ that has an impact on how we view food and places a moral belief sticker on that food. Labeling food can create the perfect storm for developing a disordered relationship with food.”

Be Open to the New

Being picky about food can seem like a natural part of childhood. But it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Don’t label your child as a picky eater or as not liking a certain food, as they will become that kind of eater or shut down when they see that food,” Shary says.

Instead, try new foods together as a family. Expand your child’s palate by offering a new food alongside a familiar food.

It can be tempting to hide fruits and vegetables in your child’s meals, such as blending vegetables into sauces, but this practice is unlikely to help your child learn to like more foods.

“If there’s an  underlying motive to get specific nutrition, it will not help broaden that child’s food preference,” Shary says. “They need to see and eat the foods. They won’t learn to choose that food if it’s never presented to them.”

Make Food Exciting

Vary the lunches you pack, the snacks you offer and the meals you serve.

“Kids don’t get tired of a specific food – they get bored of seeing it presented the same way,” Shary says. Change it up by cutting sandwiches into fun shapes, serving snacks with cute toothpicks or chopsticks, or changing the place where the child eats.

Get kids to rethink food by encouraging them to help create snacks or make a meal from scratch. Cooking together allows you to connect with children as they learn more about the food process.

This article was originally published in our Sept. 2021 issue.

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