How to Inspire Healthy Eating

veg
Image via Katie Hurley

From the moment our babies begin to eat, we hear tons of advice about what and how to feed them to make sure that they eat a balanced diet and don't turn into picky eaters. Of course, by the time you have a toddler on your hands, you realize that some 3-year-olds only eat Goldfish crackers, and others prefer only red things. Seriously, you can feed that baby whatever you want (I remember the “turkey dinner” being a favorite around here for a while), but many toddlers will dig their heels in at some point. Not to worry — this is a perfectly normal part of child development, and you will survive it.

Of course, by the time you have a toddler on your hands, you realize that some 3-year-olds only eat Goldfish crackers, and others prefer only red things.

What we don't hear enough about is how to inspire healthy eating as children grow from hungry little preschoolers to early elementary school kids. Those early school-age years, particularly K-3, are a great time to teach healthy eating habits. It's not just a matter of “eat this but don't eat that” (those lectures are soon forgotten). It's about taking the opportunity to empower kids to make healthy choices that count.

Kids want to understand how their bodies work and what they need to do to fuel their brains. They want to draw the connections between their choices and how they feel as a result. The trick is that it's not just a one-time conversation. Young children need to engage in meaningful conversations about healthy habits (including food choices, sleep, hygiene) over and over again. They need to ask questions and process the information. Only then will they learn how to make the choices that help them thrive.

How can parents inspire healthy eating as their kids grow? Try a few of these strategies in your home to help empower your kids:

healthy food
Image via Flickr/ Tatters ❀

Educate them

Kids hear a lot of lectures about eating fruits and vegetables, but what they really need is information. Why are fruits and vegetables so important? What counts as a vegetable? What do the nutrients in a carrot, for example, do to help them grow?

Now that my kids are old enough to understand the concept of research, we take the time to look up information about different foods. One night, we spent an entire meal discussing the benefits of orange foods!

Teaching our children about the specific benefits of a balanced diet helps them make healthy choices.

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kid vegetables
Image via Flickr/ hoyasmeg

Be positive and realistic

Parents often get into negative food patterns when a child refuses to eat certain foods or sticks to just a few. That can be frustrating. I would know; food allergies triggered fearful eating in one of my kids, and moving beyond the few safe foods has been a challenge.

Kids get tired of hearing about what they can't do. They also get tired of negative input about what they're doing wrong. Wouldn't you? Keep food conversations positive in your house. Instead of constantly saying “no,” create a list of “yes foods.” You might not want your kid to eat potato chips with every meal, for instance, so make a list of all of the great healthy ways you can cook potatoes.

As important as it is to be positive, it's also important to be realistic. Changing eating habits doesn't happen in one day, and some kids need a slow and steady approach to trying new foods. A couple of bites at a time is better than zero. Be patient and remain calm.

{ MORE: To the Parent Who's Raising Their Children Differently Than They Were Raised }

kids cooking
Image via Flickr/ fotologic

Teach them to cook

If you want kids to feel empowered when it comes to creating a healthy lifestyle, you have to give them the opportunity to be involved. Believe it or not, kids can learn to use a stove and slice fruits and vegetables. Do they need assistance and supervision while they learn? Of course! But teaching them to cook their own meals helps kids feel capable. And when kids are involved in the cooking, they are more likely to try a few bites.

grocery shooping
Image via Flickr/ USACE Europe District

Go to the source

The grocery store can be loud, cold, and much too bright. While it's good for many reasons to involve the kids in the shopping, the best bet for adding new colors to the diet is to try a local farmers' market — or even a farm.

We are spoiled here in California, so strawberry picking is easy and accessible. On our last strawberry-picking adventure, the kids also picked snap peas and lettuce. With everything so fresh, colorful, and fragrant, they couldn't wait to get home and cook dinner.

Find a farmers' market or farm stand to visit during the warmer months. Choose grocery stores that are inviting with well-organized produce. Leave time for roaming so that your kids can look around for new things.

{ MORE: Parents Are More Powerful than Superheroes }

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vegetable garden
Image via Flickr/ woodleywonderworks

Plant a garden

My daughter loves to plant stuff. Not long ago, she took a potato from the kitchen and planted it in the ground. I didn't think much of it, but she cared for it every day. The result? Seven delicious potatoes!

Whether you plant a small garden box or plant stuff all over your yard like my daughter does, giving your kids the freedom to grow their own food will inspire healthy choices. It's also a boost to the self-confidence!

{ MORE: Button-Up Baby: Tips Help Your Toddler Learn Independence and Dress Themselves }

tea party
Image via Flickr/ hudsonthego

Host “fancy” dinners

It doesn't matter what is actually on the menu — when we declare it “fancy dinner party night,” the kids are more likely to try new things (even if just a couple of bites). They love to sit at the bigger table and dress up for the meal. My daughter, in particular, likes to run the show.

Below are a few of her “fancy dinner party” tips:

  • Handmade place cards make people feel welcome
  • Place mats are nice, but tablecloths are the fanciest
  • Light as many candles as you can, just don't put them near little kids
  • Piano music is a must when people are looking for their seats
  • Pine cones always look nice in the middle of the table
  • Dessert is always fancy
  • Everyone picks clothes that make them feel fancy
  • Jokes are good for having fun

Happy eating!

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How to Inspire Healthy Eating

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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