Healthy eating habits in children: what advice can you give parents?

According to a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association1, it’s not just what children eat that is important, but how they eat as well. The statement offers guidelines to help parents and caregivers promote good eating habits and help children maintain a healthy weight. This may serve to reduce those children’s risk of illness later in life.

Positive eating environment

Girl and father eating breakfast at kitchen tableWhile many children have the ability to stop eating when full, children are also influenced by the overall atmosphere and their parents’ behaviour at mealtimes. When a child feels pressure to eat, it can be harder for them to heed the natural signals of their body that indicate hunger or satiety. By offering children a range of healthy options and letting them choose what they want to eat – and more importantly, how much they want to eat – it is possible to encourage them to develop healthy eating habits. More often than not, this leads to a healthy eating pattern and a healthy weight later in life. The recommendation is therefore to emphasise a positive eating environment rather than enforce potentially strict rules regarding what and how much a child must eat.

Picky eaters

Sometimes, however, allowing children to make their own food choices can prove challenging – especially when they are picky and/or resistant to new products or dishes. This behaviour is commonly seen in young children aged one to five years and is quite normal. Authoritarian rules concerning food and handing out rewards and punishments may, in the short term, seem like successful strategies. Yet these approaches are not supported by research and can in fact have negative effects in the long term. An authoritarian eating environment may prevent a child from developing positive decision-making skills, which are important developmental processes. The use of an authoritarian approach increases the likelihood that a child will eat when they are not hungry. Children raised with this approach also tend to eat high-calorie foods more often, increasing their risk of becoming overweight. An entirely flexible approach, on the other hand, in which the child is allowed to eat what and when they want, does not provide sufficient boundaries to allow the child to develop healthy eating habits. In addition, research has linked such an approach to an increased risk of undesirable weight gain among children.

An approach that works

When faced with picky eaters, repeatedly offering a variety of healthy products can increase the chances that a child will accept these products, particularly when they are served alongside products the child already knows and enjoys eating. And when parents are enthusiastic about eating certain products, this may help the child to accept those products as well. Setting a good

example by eating healthy products or dishes – whether it’s a parent, caregiver, sibling or peer – is a good strategy for helping children be open to a wider range of food choices. Next to that, parents should provide structure and boundaries without imposing excessive limitation on their children’s decision-making autonomy, causing the children to stop paying attention to their own sensations of hunger and satiety.

Tips for parents

  • Provide a selection of healthy options and let your child decide for themselves what they want to eat.
  • Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal signals from your child that indicate they are feeling hungry or full.
  • Do not encourage or pressure your child to eat more than they want to.
  • Eat at regularly scheduled times.
  • Serve healthy or new dishes/products alongside dishes/products your child already enjoys.
  • Frequently try new and healthy foods together with your child and demonstrate that you enjoy eating these foods: as a parent, you are a role model.

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