All parents know that every child needs balanced nutrition from a variety of foods. Unfortunately, getting children to eat (and keep eating) healthy can be quite a challenge. Studies show  that childhood eating habits persist into adulthood, greatly increasing the risk of chronic and lifestyle diseases. Parents have long struggled to inculcate healthy habits in their children, from chewing their food properly to avoiding distractions, and so on. However, previous generations didn’t have to contend with the onslaught of processed foods and digital technology that parents today must also deal with. Hence, here are five childhood lessons on eating that can promote better health and body-weight for life.
1. Focus On Health Not Weight
You need to first change your own approach to healthy eating. Healthy eating isn’t just about weight loss or maintaining the perfect figure; it’s about achieving better health. When discussing food and diet choices with your kids, avoid talking about weight and obesity as this can be damaging to their self-esteem and body image later in life. Research  found that teens whose parents frequently discussed bodyweight were more susceptible to eating disorders and unhealthy weight-control behaviours. Instead of recommending exercise and healthy eating to lose weight, focus on outcomes with positive connotations, such as improved athletic ability, faster growth and development, or improved learning ability.
2. Widen Kids’ Healthy Food Palette
All parents struggle to get their children to accept new and healthy foods. Most try unsuccessfully or even force their kids to eat these foods, but give up after just one or two attempts. Those are two mistakes you shouldn’t be making. Studies  demonstrate that children’s food preferences are shaped by repeated exposure and without the use of coercion. To widen your child’s acceptance of a range of healthy fruits, veggies, nuts, and other foods, you need to make them available more frequently, encouraging kids to taste them without using force.
3. Eat As A Family
You know that healthy eating requires you to be a good role model and this best way to do this is by making meals a communal or family activity. Eat together as far as is possible and get the children involved in food shopping or cooking. This can be used to expose them to fruits and vegetables in a more positive setting. Having meals together as a family is perhaps the most important habit to cultivate, as we know from research  that children who grew up in such an environment tend to follow healthier diets even as adults.
4. Be Wary Of Food Rewards
It’s a fairly common practice to reward or bribe children with sweet treats and other guilty pleasures, but this is one of the worst things that you can do. It fosters an unhealthy relationship with food, with some being seen as more ‘desirable’ and others less so. A report  suggests that using unhealthy snacks as a reward was found to increase preference for those foods, making them crave unhealthy foods even more. It can also make kids dislike healthy fruits and vegetables when junk food and sweet treats are offered as a reward for consuming those healthy foods.
5. Limit Exposure To Distractions
Stimulus control is another healthy habit-forming technique that is backed by research . It requires you to reduce your child’s exposure to distractions that can cultivate unhealthy behaviours. This would include limiting TV time and avoiding any screen time during meals, as well as clearing the house of any ‘forbidden’ foods. While watching TV during meals works as a distraction, it promotes overeating and is linked to other unhealthy behaviours later in life. The practice of keeping restricted or unhealthy foods out of reach has also been shown to adversely affect self-control , with children more likely to binge eat when they have access to such foods.
Importance of Healthy Eating Habits for Kids
As parents, all of us recognize the importance of healthy eating and nutrition for growth and development. However, maintenance of healthy weight is just as important as nutrition because of the increased risk and prevalence of childhood obesity today. While childhood obesity may not seem as serious a problem as obesity in adults, it poses a serious threat of chronic health conditions, including conditions that can persist into or develop in early adulthood. Healthy eating habits for kids are vital to lower this risk as it also prepares them for a healthier adulthood. The cultivation of good eating habits for kids is associated with healthier eating during adolescence and adulthood too. So, by encouraging healthy food habits for kids, you’re also doing a lot to secure their healthy future.
Ignoring good eating habits for kids increases the risk of juvenile obesity, which is associated with a higher risk of conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol levels, hypertension, and future heart disease. Children who are overweight or obese are also a lot more vulnerable to asthma and sleep disorders because of airway obstruction from excess fat deposits. Problems that we associated with old age like joint pain can also start to surface during childhood as a result of obesity, making it important to cultivate healthy food habits for kids at an early age.
What Else Can You Do?
Aside from dietary factors, which you can address by cultivating healthy eating habits for kids, other factors can also increase the risk of childhood obesity, such as psychological factors and activity levels. Children who are bullied or abused (mentally or physically) are extremely vulnerable to obesity and eating disorders as they tend to use food as a coping mechanism. In such situations, you need to recognize the warning signs and seek help from counsellors instead of trying to force your child to adopt healthy eating habits.
The lack of physical activity is one of the most common causes of childhood obesity, as kids today are increasingly sedentary, as are most of us adults. As is the case with us, children also tend to gain more weight when they don’t get enough exercise. Physical activity, whether play, sports, or exercise, helps to burn calories and maintain healthy body weight. This makes it important for parents to also encourage physical activity and outdoor activities in addition to healthy eating habits for kids.
While these practices have proven benefits in promoting healthy childhood eating habits, these are just some of the most effective ones. You can also experiment with other techniques to find ones that work best for your parenting style, but make sure to always lead by example.