Healthy eating habits go hand and hand with health. As parents, we want nothing more than for our children to be healthy (and happy) and sustain that health throughout their adolescence and adulthood. With childhood and adult weight issues through the roof and the negative impact of excess weight has on health outcomes and quality of life, teaching healthy habits early on is paramount. In addition, a healthy diet is key to a healthy gut microbiome, which is a driving factor in overall health.
Model Healthy Eating Habits
Imitation is a natural and vital learning and development behavior employed by children from a very young age. In fact, this is a behavior that most mammal babies and adolescents depend on to obtain the necessary skills for survival. We can hardly expect our children to develop healthy eating habits if we ourselves are not demonstrating what those healthy habits are.
Healthy habits to model include (but are not limited to):
Opting for fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes and beans, and lean protein over highly processed food at both meal and snack times.
Demonstrating portion control.
Exhibiting a healthy relationship with food (food should not be a reward or crutch).
Choosing water over sugary drinks.
Doing something active every day.
Take a Trip to the Farmer’s Market
As indicated in a pilot study on the Sprouts Healthy Habits program, “knowledge that promotes healthy choices is not limited specifically to nutrition but also includes teaching children about where food comes from and how to prepare food.” Farmer’s markets offer a rich hands-on learning environment for teaching children about healthy eating habits. They present an opportunity to teach about eating fresh, locally, and seasonally and a chance to actively participate in choosing the food that will later be prepared and eaten at home.
Involve Your Children in Food Preparation
Involving your children in food preparation is a dynamic way to teach a range of valuable life skills and healthy habits. A study of grade 5 students and the frequency of their involvement in home meal preparation demonstrated that “the higher the frequency of helping prepare and cook food at home, the higher their fruit and vegetable preference and self-efficacy for selecting and eating healthy foods.”
Support Moderation, Not Deprivation
While we all know certain foods and beverages are void of nutritional value and can be harmful to health if consumed regularly (i.e., sugary drinks and treats), a child that is completely deprived of these types of indulgences is more likely to seek them out secretly or as an adult. Children’s taste buds are naturally more in favor of sweet than bitter flavors, hence why most young kids don’t like broccoli or other bitter-tasting green veggies; this biological reason directly stems from a child's growth trajectory. Carbohydrates (i.e. sugars like glucose) are the preferred fuel for the brain and growth. Their bodies need access to more carbohydrates to develop, so the body supports their appeal through cravings and food preferences.
A healthy diet doesn’t necessarily mean a diet void of any and all things sugary or even packaged, though. Teaching moderation is more effective than deprivation—we all remember when our parents would issue a hard “no” to something so we just wanted it more, right? We live in a world of options and there are certainly healthier versions of unhealthy snacks and treats readily available for you to share with your children in moderation.
Apply Small Teaching Moments Often
Teaching moments are all around us. As parents, our job is to prepare our children to the best of our abilities for the day when they leave the nest. By taking advantage of small teaching moments often, you’ll end up bestowing upon your kids a wealth of essential knowledge and tools to thrive.
Little lessons that are important to teach along the way can include:
Healthy food is powerful. It provides energy and immune support so we can do the things we love to do.
Color diversity on the plate equals nutrient diversity; in other words, eat the rainbow.
Eat natural food; avoid food full of artificial ingredients and preservatives. Less is more on an ingredients list.
Protein is found in plants, not just animal sources. A predominantly plant-based diet supports a healthy gut microbiome, is nutrient-dense, and is also more environmentally friendly.
Healthy habits start at home, and you are your children’s greatest teacher.