I know that it is often difficult to improve our habits for the benefit of others; this life-enhancing process needs to be something we do for ourselves. However, if anyone can make positive changes, it is parents for the sake of their children. Improving your children’s health and helping them start with good habits begins with you. Here are my top-10 guidelines for parents who want to teach their children good nutritional habits.
1. The most effective way to get kids to eat healthy is to set a good example! Young people are most influenced by what they see and experience, not by what they’re told. Therefore, what you do – how you live – has the greatest affect on shaping your kids’ behavior and their diets. Remember that the habits your children form while they’re young will probably be with them for life.
2. Feed your children a balanced diet. Natural tastes for food develop early. If kids eat real food and develop a taste for nature's fruits, vegetables and other delicious flavors, they won’t depend on the stronger and enhanced flavor of processed food. Prepare tasty foods and make sure your kids eat their nutritional foods first before allowing treats or desserts. A balanced diet for you and your children includes 70-80% wholesome, natural foods. Limit treats and watch out for excess sugar, caffeine in sodas and chocolates, and heavily processed foods laced with chemicals like colored dyes and preservatives.
3. Don’t bribe your kids with sugar and other treats; rather encourage them with healthy foods and snacks. It is so easy to forget to take the time to deal with children’s true needs–which are really love and attention. When you’re busy, it’s a temptation to give them sodas and other sweets instead of you. This can create the habit of satisfying emotional needs with food or material things, so don’t get into the pattern of substituting food and sugary rewards for other needs.
4. Have healthy snacks around the house for your kids – organic sliced apples, oranges, grapes or bananas, raisins or dates, almonds or other nuts, yogurt, pieces of cheese with healthy crackers, good chips and guacamole, salsa, and more! It’s an important practice to offer your children healthy snacks at least a couple of times a day, such as mid-morning or in their school lunch and then after school. Some parents like to call the time around 3-4pm as the witching hour – recognizing that their kids are becoming cranky and irritable, but not realizing that they may simply be fatigued or have low blood sugar. Make a list of healthy snacks to fulfill your family’s needs and even have your kids help you out with this.
5. Get your children involved in grocery shopping and preparing the foods that they like. During trips to the market, allow them to choose a few appropriate treats. You could even give them a budget, like $5-10, to spend on good choices when they help you shop for family groceries. Most children will appreciate learning to prepare food that they enjoy. Younger ones will be enthused about playing "kitchen" and "restaurant" with the bigger kids or their parents. Learn to be creative; together you may find some new tasty treats the whole family can enjoy.
6. Plant a garden with your kids if you have the space, or if not, join with neighbors in a community garden. This involves helping your children learn about the Earth and gain the personal, first-hand experience of growing their own food. If you only have a patio or small deck, you can use planter’s boxes or hydroponic equipment to cultivate organic, fast-growing produce, such as tomatoes, strawberries, herbs and lettuce for example. It’s magical for kids to watch things grow and eat foods fresh off the vine. Or get your kids to help you make delicious, nourishing and vital sprouts from seeds or beans, such as alfalfa, sunflower, lentils or mung beans.
7. Organize your refrigerator and pantries in a way that allows the young ones to get the stuff that they want or that you want them to have. This makes it less easy for them to get the treats that you want to control. Even if they eat too much junk when they’re at their friends or when going out, encourage them to eat well whenever they can and keep setting a good example. It will be worth it for you too in the long run!
8. Help your children to avoid or to limit their intake of foods with unhealthy additives. The basic additives to watch for and minimize with regard to children are:
- Artificial food colors in candies, drinks and many other colored foods
- Excess refined sugar in a wide variety of processed foods and baked goods
- MSG (monosodium glutamate) found in soups, cereals and crackers
- Aspartame (an artificial sweetener) found in sodas, candies and chewing gum
- Sodium nitrite in treated meats
- Sulfites and sulfur dioxide used in drying fruits and other preserved foods
- Hydrogenated fats found in many baked goods and cereals
- Olestra, the fake fat used in potato chips
- Also, limit children’s intake of foods containing artificial flavorings, the preservatives BHT and BHA, and excess salt
9. Look out for food allergies and reactions that are so common in children. They may manifest in ways that are not typically thought to be food related, even by some doctors. You will notice that when children limit foods causing their reactions, they will usually become clearer, more alert, and healthier. The delayed type of food allergy can cause more "hidden" reactions that may not appear until later that day or the next. For example, chronic ear fluid congestion (otitis media) is quite common in young children. When some children who have had chronic ear infections are taken off cow’s milk products, those with a dairy allergy or sensitivity will stop getting ear problems. I address this entire issue in my book, The False Fat Diet.
There are a number of other problems that relate to allergies and food reactions. These include skin problems, mood swings and certain digestive complaints. Some of the most common foods that cause reactions in kids, besides milk, include: eggs, peanuts, citrus fruits and tomatoes. Since any specific food can cause an allergic reaction in any individual at any age, it’s wise for parents and their doctor to pay attention to this possibility.
10. Consider giving your children supportive and protective nutrient supplements. Children don’t need a lot of additional vitamins and minerals, especially if they eat a healthy, balanced diet. However, the requirement for many nutrients is high in the growing years, and providing nutritional insurance by giving your children a few additional supplements over and above the diet is a good idea. I suggest an age-appropriate multi-vitamin and mineral combination, preferably one from natural sources and without preservatives, sugar or artificial food coloring. There are a variety of healthy brands at natural foods stores and through catalogues, and even pharmacies have good choices. Additional vitamin C, in amounts of 100-250 mg twice a day, can be helpful in maintaining health. Even more can be given if the child has allergies or becomes ill with a viral problem like a cold or flu. When kids are under stress, when they exercise more or travel on airplanes, or when they are exposed to chemicals, an antioxidant nutrient mix may be protective. Look for one that contains vitamins E and C, beta-carotene, a little selenium and zinc. Children really enjoy the Emergen-C powdered products from Alacer Corporation; about a half packet (500 mg) is appropriate for most children over age 4. This is another good way to supply additional vitamin C and trace minerals.
What to Pack in a Healthy School Lunch
Overall, I suggest sending a wholesome and balanced lunch to school with a good sandwich, some raw vegetables and fruit, healthier chips or cookies, and some milk (if in a thermal bag), filtered water or juice.
Note: Have a good lunchbox or one of the new thermal bags that keeps food hot or cold.
- Sandwiches – on good-quality, nutritious whole grain bread: tuna salad, turkey (oven-roasted or other nitrite-free packaged or deli turkey), almond or other nut butter with a natural fruit jam or sliced banana and honey
- Whole apple or apple slices in a small sealed container
- Other sliced fruit or a whole orange or banana
- Raisins (organic and sulfite-free if possible)
- Almonds or other nuts or seeds in a small baggie or container
- Sliced carrots or celery, possibly with a healthy dip
- Leftovers from last night’s dinner – chicken, burrito or enchilada, pasta and more
- Juice and water mixture, or just water, in a small thermos or send it cold to keep lunch cool
Summary: 10 Ways to Encourage Children’s Healthy Eating Habits
- Set a good example by eating a healthy diet yourself
- Provide a balanced diet with a variety of tasty and nutritious foods
- Avoid using food as a reward and encourage healthy snacks instead
- Have healthy snacks available and offer them to your children at appropriate times, such as mid-morning when they’re home and in the afternoon after school
- Get kids involved in shopping and cooking
- Help children grow fresh food in a garden or planter box
- Organize your refrigerator and cupboards so that kids can reach the right foods for them
- Avoid the riskiest food additives–artificial colors, aspartame, BHT, MSG and excess sugar
- Look out for allergies and food reactions
- Ask your health practitioner about a quality children’s multi-vitamin-mineral (without additives and artificial colorings), as well as a little extra vitamin C, calcium, or any other appropriate children’s supplement.
Resource: Staying Healthy With Nutrition has a number of relevant sections on nutrition for children, including Chapter 15’s individual lifestyle programs for infants, children and adolescents, as is appropriate for your family. Chapter 14 includes a variety of recipes, especially ones for children.
© 2015 by Elson Haas, MD (adapted from Staying Healthy with Nutrition)