It’s important to teach good nutrition behaviors as early as possible to your kids in order to set them on the right path for healthy and productive lives. The eating behaviors you teach your children are foundational to the relationship and habits they will have with food as adults. This means that thin children and overweight children should be taught exactly the same eating behaviors, the ones critical to have a healthy and positive relationship with food.
Positive and healthy eating behaviors will generally contribute to a healthier weight and contribute to decreasing the risk of various diseases, provide better energy, reduce the risk for eating disorders, and help support physical activity and exercise.
Here are the five most important eating behaviors that kids should learn early on in life that will serve them for decades to come:
1. Listen to Your Body: Eat when hungry and stop when satisfied.
Sounds simple right? This means teaching kids to understand what hunger feels like and teaching them the difference between being hungry and just wanting to eat for some other reason.
It also means allowing them to stop eating when just gently satisfied and not forcing them to eat until what feels full to them.
- Show kids where their stomach is and talk about the sensations of hunger and satisfaction. Hunger=growls and satisfaction=not hungry and no pressure in the stomach, full=slight pressure in the stomach.
- Talk about how they feel in the stomach when discussing how much food is eaten versus how much has been consumed from the plate. Most adults grossly overestimate appropriate portion sizes for kids.
2. Eat in a Regular Pattern: Eat three balanced meals and a healthy snack in between meals that are more than four hours apart.
Skipping meals can lead to moody and less focused kids due to hunger. A perfectly timed snack can prevent kids from being ravenous at the next meal.
- Be a good role model and eat balanced meals and healthy snacks. Kids learn what you do, not what you say!
- Teach kids what components make a balanced meal: grains (with fiber), lean protein source, vegetables/fruits, and low-fat dairy. Practice reviewing the food groups at each meal to check if they are all there.
- Teach kids what healthy snacks are and make them accessible. Find snacks that have more nutrients or have a good source of fiber or are less processed and more wholesome. Make kids part of the process of discovering and buying the snack.
3. Mindful Eating: Meals should be free of distractions.
Being distracted with the television, tablets, phones, or any other object prevents the mind and body connection that is required to know how much food is enough. It can also detract from the enjoyment of food, which can lead to overeating for some and under-eating for others.
Mindful eating usually leads to more enjoyment of food, more appropriate portions, slower eating and may even promote positive family conversations and bonding.
- Be a good role model and make sure that you demonstrate mindful eating practices at meals. Make rules around eating so distractions are minimized.
- Keep meal times as positive as possible so that the family looks forward to this time together. Avoid stressful conversations whenever possible. Kids that eat more meals together as a family generally have healthier eating habits than those who do not.
4. Food is for energy, not a reward or consolation prize.
Don’t reward or bribe with food. Bribing with dessert to finish the plate only reinforces overeating and sends the message that desserts are used for rewards. Don’t give food when kids are upset, crying or hurt. This reinforces that ice cream mends a broken heart and that chocolate fixes everything!
We want kids to learn healthy and positive coping mechanisms not associated with food.
- Be a good role model and make sure that you frame food intake in the right way. Don’t drown yourself in food when you have had a tough day… remember your kids learn what you do, not what you say!
- If you serve dessert, it is best to do it along with the meal. Don’t save it until the end, as then everyone will eat it even if they are already satisfied or full. It sounds strange, but give it a try and see!
5. Healthy food and physical activity are independently important.
One is not used to cancel out the other! Encourage physical activity each day, but not as a way to cancel food calories or justify food intake. Physical activity is important for many health reasons and although it can contribute to a healthy weight, should not be positioned in that way.
- Be a good role model. Avoid saying that you have to go and exercise because you ate too much. Exercise regardless of what or how much you eat!
- Teach healthy eating. Teach an active lifestyle.
The best way to teach the best eating behaviors to your kids is to live these behaviors each day along with them.
Raquel C. Garzon, MS, RD, LD/N is President and Founder of Revitalize Project, Inc., a company that focuses on revitalizing the health and well-being of local and global communities. She is a Registered Dietitian, was formerly a Board Certified Specialist in Pediatric Nutrition, and previously worked for the U.S. Army as a Maternal and Pediatric Dietitian. She previously served as Senior Vice President of Programs and Delivery and Director of Nutrition at the Human Performance Institute Division of Wellness & Prevention, Inc., a Johnson & Johnson Company. She has two children and enjoys traveling, adventure racing, and salsa dancing.