National Consumers League


NCL Food Issues

Form good eating habits early

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Good eating habits start youngFrom movement in Congress to entertainment television programming, the topic of school meals has recently generated national attention. While healthy school breakfasts and lunches play a key role in ensuring the health of America’s youths, children's eating habits are formed far earlier than in the school cafeteria.

Between the Child Nutrition Act working its way through Congress and the hit success of TV’s Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the topic of school meals has recently generated an unprecedented level of national attention. While healthy school breakfasts and lunches undoubtedly play a key role in ensuring the health of America’s youths, the eating habits that guide children’s choices between the various foods offered at school – and elsewhere – are instilled well before most children enter the school system. For that reason, it is important that creating healthy eating habits not be overlooked in the quest to improve the nutritional quality of the foods that American children consume.

Dietary preferences form early. In fact, a recent study found that children as young as two years old hold food preferences based on their parents’ dietary choices. For this reason, parents (and other primary care givers) have a responsibility to serve as healthy eating role models and prioritize the development of healthy eating habits. Modeling good behavior and involving children in shopping and preparation go a long way towards this goal. The following tips provide ways to help children develop a taste for healthy foods and an understanding of the importance of consuming them:

At the grocery store:

  • Bring children to the grocery store! Supermarkets offer a great environment for reinforcing conversations about where different foods come from and what constitutes healthy food. Depending on a child’s age, the content of these conversations will vary.
  • Even the youngest of children can understand lessons about the need to eat a diversity of foods and the importance of foods that are good for one’s body. Engage children in these discussions while choosing items to purchase.
  • When possible, let children make choices. Offer young children choices between various vegetables or fruits (i.e. “do you want to get peaches or plums?”), and have older children compare nutrition facts panels to find healthier options of the foods they – and you – wish to purchase. Later, reminding a child that he or she chose to purchase a given food item may make him or her more likely to actually eat it.

In the kitchen

  • Let children help in age-appropriate ways. Particularly with unfamiliar foods, having helped may make a child more likely to eat that offering (i.e. mashing sweet potatoes or putting baby carrots onto a plate). At mealtimes, provide ownership for the child by announcing his or her name in conjunction with the food he or she has helped to make (i.e. “Paul’s Mashed Potatoes”).
  • Encourage children to invent new snacks, using healthy ingredients. If a child thinks that peas and grapes taste great together, do not discourage him.
  • Offer choices (within reason) when possible, while preparing meals (i.e. “Which would you like to have for dinner, spinach or broccoli?).

At mealtime and snacktime

  • Serve the same meal to everyone, and make it known that only one meal will be made.
  • Offer “no thank you portions” (say, 3 or 5 small pieces or bites) of foods that children are hesitant to try.
  • Introduce new foods at the beginning of meals, when the child is very hungry. Only introduce one new food at a time, and also serve something the child likes at the meal. When offering the new food, taste it first, in front of the child, and show how much you like it. Describe the food’s taste, texture, and smell. Do not force the child to eat it – it often takes numerous exposures before a child will enjoy, or even be willing to try, a certain food. Wait a few days before introducing a rejected food again.
  • Make mealtime a family event, as often as possible. Turn off the television, have a positive family conversation, and avoid answering the telephone. Eating in a stress-free environment and engaging with family members encourages young children to copy positive behaviors, such as eating respectfully and trying new foods. Making family meals the norm has long-term advantages, as studies have demonstrated a wide range of ways in which children benefit from nightly – or near-nightly – family dinners.
  • When children say that they are hungry, even if it is not a normal meal or snack time, offer a small, healthy snack.

Good behavior is an ongoing process

  • Lead by example. Choose fruit and raw veggies as snacks, and put together well-balanced meals for yourself. In front of children, try to drink water or milk; do not make a habit of drinking soda (diet or otherwise), juice, or alcoholic beverages in their presence. Children learn from what you do, not just from what you say.
  • Try not to discuss dieting or your desire to lose weight around children. Never tell a child that he or she needs to go on a diet. Instead, focus on making healthy choices and consuming a wide range of foods in order to have energy and improve health. Talk about why you and your child are choosing certain foods (i.e. carrots for beta carotene and healthy eyes, or grilled fish for protein), rather than why you are avoiding others. Explain why unhealthy foods are “occasional” foods through a health focus, but without undue mention of their role in weight gain.
  • Do not offer sweets as rewards. For a job well done, offer a special activity. To show love or provide comfort, give hugs, kisses, or an uplifting talk.

Remember that instilling healthy eating habits in children is an ongoing process that takes time. Prioritizing these important behaviors one week, and abandoning them the next, sends mixed messages to children. Conversely, falling off the wagon every now and then, or allowing your child to attend a birthday party where one too many sweets were served, is unavoidable; in the long term, what matters most is how you treat, discuss, and serve food most of the time. Finally, children of different ages have different dietary needs. Consult a pediatrician or family physician to determine the particular nutritional needs of the child(ren) under your care.