Your child’s hair-twirling, breath-holding, or nose-picking may drive you nuts, but most of these common kid’s habits tend to vanish with time — and they may disappear sooner if you simply ignore them. However, if he’s gotten into a less than stellar eating routine, don’t assume he’ll eventually expand his repertoire on his own. “Eating habits from childhood definitely can carry over into adulthood, so it’s best to deal with them now,” says Jennifer Trachtenberg, MD, author of Good Kids, Bad Habits. Since you don’t want to make every meal a battleground, you’ll need to take small, smart, and even sneaky steps to help your child change his ways.
Top tips for creating good habits, breaking bad habits and setting the tone for how you should be managing eating:
Have regular family meals. Knowing dinner is served at approximately the same time every night and that the entire family will be sitting down together is comforting and enhances appetite. Breakfast is another great time for a family meal, especially since kids who eat breakfast tend to do better in school.
Cook more meals at home. Eating home cooked meals is healthier for the whole family and sets a great example for kids about the importance of food. Restaurant meals tend to have more fat, sugar, and salt. Save dining out for special occasions.
Get kids involved. Children enjoy helping adults to shop for groceries, selecting what goes in their lunch box, and preparing dinner. It’s also a chance for you to teach them about the nutritional values of different foods, and (for older children) how to read food labels. Involve your children in food shopping and preparing meals. These activities will give you hints about your children’s food preferences, an opportunity to teach your children about nutrition, and provide your kids with a feeling of accomplishment. In addition, children may be more willing to eat or try foods that they help prepare.
Encourage your children to eat slowly. A child can detect hunger and fullness better when they eat slowly. Before offering a second helping or serving, ask your child to wait at least 15 minutes to see if they are truly still hungry. This will give the brain time to register fullness. That second helping should be much smaller than the first.
Plan for snacks. Continuous snacking may lead to overeating, but snacks that are planned at specific times during the day can be part of a nutritious diet, without spoiling a child’s appetite at meal times. You should make snacks as nutritious as possible, without depriving your children of occasional chips or cookies, especially at parties or other social events.
Discourage eating meals or snacks while watching TV. Try to eat only in designated areas of your home, such as the dining room or kitchen. Eating in front of the TV may make it difficult to pay attention to feelings of fullness, and may lead to overeating.
Encourage your children to drink more water. Over consumption of sweetened drinks and sodas has been linked to increased rates of obesity.
Try not to use food to punish or reward your children. Withholding food as a punishment may lead children to worry that they will not get enough food. For example, sending children to bed without any dinner may cause them to worry that they will go hungry. As a result, children may try to eat whenever they get a chance. Similarly, when foods, such as sweets, are used as a reward, children may assume that these foods are better or more valuable than other foods. For example, telling children that they will get dessert if they eat all of their vegetables sends the wrong message about vegetables.
Make sure your children’s meals outside the home are balanced. Find out more about their school lunch program, or pack their lunch to include a variety of foods. Also, select healthier items when dining at restaurants.
Set a schedule. Kids thrive on structure, so serve two or three daily snacks (midmorning, mid-afternoon, and bedtime if he/she is hungry) — and try to have your child sit at the table for them. When they ask for a snack at another time, especially if he/she has just eaten and probably isn’t even hungry, remind them that snack time is coming. (If you’re not comfortable denying them, offer a piece of fruit to tide them over.) “That can be hard at first, but the payoff is that your child’s hunger will be better regulated and more predictable,” says Linda Piette, RD, author of Just Two More Bites! That said, you should leave some wiggle room in your snack schedule, depending on the day’s events.
Keep junk out of sight. It’s harder to say no when you have all sorts of goodies in the open — and at little arms’ reach. Rearrange your pantry and fridge so the only stuff you don’t mind having them grab (like baby carrots) is front and centre.
Good habits have never been a bad thing!