Encouraging Healthy Eating in Children

Meet Nathan. In many ways, he is your average 22 year old. He loves sports, just graduated from college, and is looking forward to beginning his first career—but there is something about Nathan that should be different. Rather than being a thin, energetic, healthy young man, Nathan has asthma, is overweight, diabetic, and at risk for multiple other chronic diseases. Sadly, Nathan’s story is becoming more and more common.

How did this happen? Surely it did not transpire overnight. In Nathan’s case, some blame genetics since his parents struggle with similar problems. However, studies have clearly shown that this is not the case; genetics only account for small percentage of the overall health risk. The more influential factors are within our own control, through lifestyle choices.[1],[2]

Just as breastfeeding has been found to have an influence on a child’s health throughout their life, lifelong dietary patterns have been shown to begin in childhood.[3] The early childhood years are a foundation for habits that carry into teenage years and adult life. They influence many areas including oral health problems, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.[4],[5] A parent’s influence on their young ones eating habits is very important. As a parent or caretaker, there are several things you can do that will encourage children to eat healthy and thus establish positive habits from an early age.

Serving Sizes

Give children servings that are suitable for their age or “kid” sized. If they’re still hungry they can always ask for more. Children all eat and grow at different paces. Don’t punish them if what they eat doesn’t seem to be enough. Also, watch what you’re feeding them. It is usually unhealthy sweets and junk food that kids will overeat. You don’t find stories of childhood obesity resulting from overeating carrots and apples.

Introducing New Foods

When introducing new foods, make sure you only add one new item at a time. Introducing too many new foods at once may overwhelm your child. If your child does not like a food don’t force him/her to eat it. Introduce it again at another time. Often a new food needs to be introduced 12 or more times before a child accepts it.[6]

At mealtimes, it is wise to always have something healthy you know your child likes. Include items that cover the needed food groups, and if they don’t like a specific food give them several other healthy choices within the same food group. Never bribe them to eat healthy foods, i.e. “If you eat your veggies you can have a treat after”. This will instill in their mind a negative association with the vegetables and sweets as a positive reward.


Limit or avoid unhealthy snacking and fast food. Both of these have been associated with weight gain in children and add to cravings for snack and “junk” food items that can continue through life.[7] If children avoid snacks during the day they will also be hungrier at mealtimes and eat more. This means children may be more willing to try foods that they wouldn’t necessarily eat if they were not hungry. If they must snack away from mealtimes, have healthy snacks on hand such as raisins, apple slices, carrot sticks, etc.

Make Mealtimes Fun

Children are much more interested in what they eat when they get to help with the preparation. Involve them in the process by having your child help prepare a main meal a few times a week. This is a good time to teach them about health in a fun and understandable way. They are also more prone to try a food or meal if they helped prepare it. Another idea is to have them plan some of the weekly meals. Foods should be colorful and can also be made into different shapes by using cookie cutters or different designs with fruits, sandwiches or pancakes. Be creative.

Start a Garden

Start a garden and have the kids help with the process. This is a good way to teach them about various fruits and vegetables. They will enjoy both watching things grow and helping to pick them to be used for meals. If you don’t have enough time or room for a full garden, you can still grow a few items such as tomatoes or various herbs on the porch or inside the house. You can also take your kids to an orchard or berry farm before teaching them to make tasty and healthy desserts.

Early Education

Don’t underestimate what kids can learn at an early age. Introducing healthy foods can contribute to a lifetime of good habits. Children can help with making good foods choices. Limit refined sweets or anything that is processed. Most adults I encounter who don’t crave sugary foods never really had them available much as children. Avoid TV as well, for advertising can counteract the healthy messages you are teaching them.[8] Most kids that ask for “junk foods” have seen them from TV.

A Good Role Model

Children imitate what they see, so be a positive influence. If you talk negatively about a certain vegetable, or do not eat it at the table—you can’t blame your child for not wanting to eat it either. Make healthy foods attractive and appealing to your little ones. When you eat meals, try to eat together as a family and, as much as possible, eat the same meal. Have a set schedule that you follow for your mealtimes so children know when they can expect to eat. Don’t use mobile devices or electronics at the table, but use mealtime as quality time that children look forward to.

If good habits are established in childhood, the predicament of Nathan can be avoided. This doesn’t mean that everything will always go smoothly. This day and age, there are many environmental factors you will need to contend with. Nonetheless, the family is still the strongest influence in a child’s life. Give your child the atmosphere and knowledge where they can gain the motivation to make healthy food choices into adulthood.



[1] Northwestern University. http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2010/11/heart-disease.html

[2] Harvard School of Public Health. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/genes-and-obesity/

[3] British Journal of Nutrition. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=497C8528B1F1E4FF0CA4611D995CBE41.journals?fromPage=online&aid=8859968

[4] Annals of Medicine: Informa Healthcare. http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/07853890.2012.671537

[5] Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0528.2011.00647.x/abstract;jsessionid=C7F840D9E9D2479F706DDC8D8C13CCEB.f03t01?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

[6] University of Florida IFAS Extension. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy1142

[7] Amber Waves: Economic Research Service. http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/142403/2/3childhoodobesity.pdf

[8] Yale Rudd Center: For Food Policy and Obesity. http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/reports/Rudd_Report_Parents_Survey_Food_Marketing_2012.pdf

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