As parents, we are the biggest influence in every aspect of our children’s lives. Developing eating habits is no exception.
Good nutrition and a balanced diet is important for growth, development and long term health. But in a world full of choices, one of the biggest challenges we face as parents is to ensure that our children are eating well not just now, but in the future. We do our best to navigate through the mountains of information and provide healthy food choices in the home, but perhaps there should be more emphasis on how our own attitudes, actions and choices are influencing how our children eat.
To improve our children’s nutrition, it is important to reflect on our own relationship with nutrition and food. Reflecting your own mealtime practices and exercising healthy nutrition habits will benefit both of you. Here are some points to consider:
Monkey see monkey eat: Children are mirrors of the world around them, observing and learning from so much more than we appreciate. Kids are likely to follow in their parents’ footsteps when it comes to eating patterns. Whether you are openly eating a nutritious meal or hiding behind the cupboard eating a chocolate bar (they will find you), your child is likely to pick up some of these behaviours. Observe your own dietary habits. Are you consciously nourishing yourself with healthy food, or are you just grabbing any quick fix? Are you eating all of your meal, or are you skipping meals altogether? Are you flicking through your emails at the table, or mindfully eating?
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Meal times should be a social: Once you have checked in on your nutritional behaviours, the next step is to share mealtimes with your little one. People who eat in a social setting are more like to make better food choices and are at lower risk of becoming overweight. Many parents get into the habit of feeding their child first and then eating their own dinner after the child goes to bed. Whilst this seems more convenient, eating together takes the focus off the child’s eating and the meal becomes a more relaxed and social event. As a bonus to some quality family time, studies have also shown that children who regularly eat with their families do better at school.
If you give up, so will they: Many kids will reject foods for the first time purely through fear of trying something new. For many reasons, many parents will give up on a rejected food or meal after only two or three attempts. This is not the time to give up, if you do, your child will too. The key here is repeated exposure of rejected foods and importantly, gentle encouragement to taste. Their little taste buds are still developing and can actually be trained to like a food. It may take 10 to 16 tastes of a food before a child decides that they like it. Encourage your child to taste by enjoying the same food. When a young child sees an adult enthusiastically eating a certain food, their intake of that food is likely to be higher.
Let them eat cake: This may seem contrary to all the healthy eating information that we’re given, but one of life’s greatest pleasures is enjoying delicious food. Just as your child is observing what is coming off your plate, they are also taking cues from your attitude towards food. Enjoy your food and allow your child to experience this delight also! Negative and positive associations to food can stay with a child throughout their life. You might be surprised to know that being too restrictive with a kid’s diet correlates with overeating and reduced ability to self-regulate intake of high energy foods. Whilst healthy foods should be the usual choice, sharing some birthday cake or indulging in an ice-cream every now and then is far healthier than forbidding foods altogether. If you are concerned about certain ingredients, then actively seek alternatives but try not to push these concerns onto your child. (Note: Of course, if you or your child has any known/ high risk intolerance or allergy to a food, restrict it and educate your child as to why).
You play the biggest role in shaping your child’s nutritional habits for life. By modelling healthy eating habits, creating a positive and relaxed environment at meal times, and allowing balance, you can help your child to develop lifelong healthy habits.
Jessica Hoskins is an Australian Clinical Nutritionist & Herbalist with a passion for nourishing mothers and children. Her latest e-guide, The Nourished Toddler, is available now via her website. You can find more of Jess’s wisdom on her Instagram account @sageandfolk .