Think about it. What kind of food are you putting on your plate at dinnertime? What snacks are you eating in front of your kids? How do you talk about fruits, vegetables and whole grains—do you make them out to sound delicious and tempting, or do you sigh unenthusiastically and act resigned to eating them because they’re healthy?
Your children are paying attention, which means you have to be a good role model.
“The only way that you can truly teach [a nutritious lifestyle] to your kids is to live that way,” says Dr. Michelle Fowers, a pediatrician with North Texas Health Care Associates – Pediatrics, part of Baylor Health Care System in Texas.
“It all starts with you,” agrees registered dietitian Jennifer McDaniel, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It all starts with the parent and what you do. You are the example.”
In other words, if you teach them one thing (that good nutrition matters) but do something else entirely (I’m going to snarf up all the potato chips!), they will not learn the lesson you’re trying to impart. “You have to make nutrition an important part of your life, and they will copy you,” Fowers says.
In addition to modeling the behavior you want your children to learn, here are some other strategies that can help encourage a love of nutritious foods:
- Go shopping together. “Take your kids to the grocery store and let them help you find food,” Fowers suggests. Then when you get home, ask them to help you prepare it. You may be surprised by what they’re willing to try eating when they’ve been involved in the decision-making process.
- Continually offer healthy food. “It’s a parent’s job to put good food on a kid’s plate, and it’s a kid’s job to eat however much their tummy is hungry for,” says Fowers.
- Ask them to try new foods. Some adults still have memories of being forced to eat certain foods as kids, and that’s not what you’re trying to achieve with your child. Just ask them to try the food in question. For example, Fowers has a three-bite rule at her house, so kids must try the healthy stuff three times before bowing out. Sometimes kids will come around after a certain number of exposures to a particular food, so don’t be afraid to serve that new dish a few times (or more).
- Don’t hide the veggies. Some people like to hide veggies in other foods, a la the Jessica Seinfeld cookbook fad from a few years ago. They rationalize that at least their kids are eating some vegetables, even if they don’t realize it. McDaniel isn’t a big fan of that approach, however. “If you’re hiding it, it sends the message that there must be something bad about it,” she says.
- Talk about healthy food and good nutrition. Take the opportunity to educate your kids about nutrition whenever you get it. Make it relevant to them; instead of talking about warding off obesity, talk about how eating certain healthy foods will give them energy to participate in an upcoming race or game. And keep the talk positive. It will eventually sink in, even if you don’t think they’re really paying attention. “What we do now helps set the tone for their lives,” said McDaniel.
- Try to avoid fighting about food. You really want your preschooler (or your 8th grader) to eat that broccoli. She really does not want to eat it. Try to be positive and encourage her to eat it—a bite or two will do—but don’t get into a fight. “It becomes a control issue, when it’s not about the food,” says McDaniel.
For additional information on encouraging your children to eat healthy, check out these resources for suggestions and meal ideas:
- SuperTracker by USDA
- Meal Makeover Moms
- Simple Bites
- Family Fresh Cooking
How do you get your children to eat healthy? Share your suggestions in the comments below.