Good eating habits are developed in the early years of a child and can have lifelong health consequences. However, in a world filled with delicious but not always healthy temptations, how can parents encourage their kids to choose the most beneficial foods, such as vegetables, whole grains, fish, and berries? It is one of the biggest challenges parents have to face from the earliest years up to their children's adolescence.
Studies have shown that serious health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, can take root in early eating habits, which can become real time bombs. Even if parents can't fully control what their children eat, they can learn a lot from the research, starting by avoiding the following 6 common food mistakes:
1. Food restrictions can backfire
Forbidding or restricting certain foods - goodbye sweets, french fries, and sodas - can have a counterproductive "forbidden food" effect. It will just make kids want the food more and be ready to do anything to get it. Paradoxically, children raised in highly restrictive families are more likely to become obese. A good strategy is to banish junk food from the house and replace it with healthy snacks. Following a regular meal schedule can help as well.
2. What do you prefer, squash or brownies?
"Feeding kids squash brownies doesn't teach them to like squash - it just teaches them to like a brownie." A better method is to build "food bridges." For instance, a child who likes carrots could more easily agree to try other healthy foods of the same color.
3. Too fat to have dessert
Overweight kids do not deserve to be deprived of dessert. They deserve to have better support. After all, there are other ways to help them. As in many areas, parents are their children's first role models when it comes to food, and the whole family needs to get a balanced diet. "What's going to treat a weight problem in a child with obesity will also help prevent the problem from developing in a sibling who is thin," said David Ludwig, co-director of obesity prevention at Boston Children's Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School.
4. Not including children's input
Parents are responsible for controlling the quality of food, but children should be invited to participate in making the choices and decisions. Taking them to the grocery store or a farm stand and involving them in the preparation of the meals can teach them to select and cook food that will do them "real" good.
5. Give up? Perhaps the biggest mistake
Research has found that it can take 15 or more tries to accustom kids to liking a new food. So don't give up too soon. Instead, encourage them gently, but don't cajole them. Don't force them, and don't reward them for it. Take the time to negotiate with - and especially convince - your little picky eaters.
6. Skip family meals
The family table is not old-fashioned. In fact, it has great virtues. Avoid food battles, however, and NEVER let family meals become a source of stress. "Food habits can define the family," said Julie Mennella, a member at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, a scientific institute focused on taste and smell.
Picture: A girl and a boy having their meals side by side (ChildUp & DALL-E - 2023)