Kids today are bombarded with ads for junk food and tempted by sugary cereals and snacks in cartoon-covered boxes—no wonder encouraging them to eat healthy, nutritious foods can be a challenge. The struggle can be even tougher if a child is under severe stress. At any age, stress can break down good intentions and self-control, sending a person down a path of unhealthy choices. Over time, stress eating can lead to obesity, mood and sleep problems, and other health issues.
The good news is that there are a few simple things you can do to help young bodies and brains get the right nutrition to operate at their best. Here are some ways to encourage healthy eating habits:
Eat together as a family
Consistent, healthy routines can help children feel safe and trusting of the world around them—and mealtime is one of the most important daily routines for a family. Set aside a specific time for meals and eat together as often as possible. Age doesn’t matter—even babies can bang their spoon and enjoy the family table! Mealtimes are a great opportunity to create strong family bonds by talking about what’s going on in everyone’s lives. Remember, mealtime conversations should be an arena for positive conversations and family bonding.
Ditch the distractions
Avoid screens (such as the television and cell phone screens) during mealtimes. No matter how tempting, don’t answer the phone if it rings — use the time to talk, share, and connect.
Eat breakfast every day
Enjoying a healthy and complete breakfast helps your child start the day with a store of good energy. Try matching up a protein (such as milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, soy, or peanut butter) with whole grains (oatmeal, whole grain cereal, or whole-wheat bread). Top that off with a favorite fruit for more minerals and vitamins. Children and adults who eat breakfast daily are less likely to be overweight.
Serve lots of colorful vegetables and fruits
Aim for at least 5 servings a day. Choose fresh, frozen, or canned options and add them to what kids already eat. Try sprinkling berries or slices of banana into kids’ cereal or slipping greens like spinach into fruit smoothies. And show kids how to make some “secret” family recipes for collard greens, borsch, nopales, bok choy, or other favorite veggies—however your family rolls.
Use whole grains
Instead of plain old white rice or white bread, serve tasty, nutritious whole grains (like brown rice and quinoa) or foods made from whole grains (like whole-grain pasta, 100% whole-wheat bread, or whole-grain cornbread).
Serve healthy protein
Growing kids—and adults too—need the muscle-building, body-fueling proteins found in fish, eggs, poultry, and plant-based options like beans, lentils, peas, and nuts.
Put a lid on soda
Help your child develop the habit of reaching for water first. Limit juices, soda, and sugary drinks. Eliminating one large soda a day and replacing it with water could result in a weight loss of 14 pounds a year.
Get your children involved.
Why should you do all the meal planning, shopping, and cooking by yourself? You probably have some small budding chefs in the family just itching to get in on the action. Encourage them to make some choices (“Would you rather make a sandwich today or a smoothie?” or “Would you rather snack on an apple or an orange?”). Use the kitchen as a place to enjoy each other’s company and conversation. There’s another plus, according to some researchers: Boys are more likely to talk and open up while cooking (or watching you cook) than in a sit-down talk.