Children ages 7 and younger like what they like, and healthy eating advice for parents rarely goes beyond “offer more vegetables.” But experienced parents know that tactic only goes so far— and may go nowhere with children who are especially picky eaters, or who are watching their parents diet, or who wonder why these same rules don’t apply at Grandma’s.
Childhood obesity rates are higher than ever, with more than one-third of U.S. children overweight or obese in 2012, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last checked. Although they’re at risk of the ill effects that accompany childhood obesity— including obesity later in life— these children often lack healthy diets and proper exercise. But delivering important health lessons to the youngest among them isn’t so straightforward. It requires meeting them at their level.
What young children need in nutrition education
Educators use the phrase “developmentally appropriate practice” to describe the concept of teaching children in the ways most in alignment with their age and experience. For instance, children just entering grade school learn better through direct and interactive experiences that are meaningful on the day they learn them, whereas older children can be more receptive simply sitting and listening. This same line of reasoning can be used to teach children about food and health.
Young children aren’t equipped to learn about all of the vitamins and minerals in their food or the potentially damaging effects of eating too many sweets and processed foods. But oversimplifying by just telling them that something is healthy or that they need to eat it “because I said so” is hardly equipping them to make their own healthy food choices.
1. Ditch ‘because it’s good for you’
Because the youngest children don’t understand the complexities of nutrition, using “because it’s good for you” to convince them of a food’s value really lacks meaning— and could backfire. This is especially true when they’re resisting a particular food. They could come to associate “good for you” with unpleasant-tasting foods, steering them toward other, unhealthier options.
2. Talk about the food experience
“Children at this age are more motivated by what food looks like, its texture and its uniqueness than they are about any long-term health consequences,” says dietitian and childhood nutrition expert Jill Castle.
Because children are interested in the experience, Castle suggests talking with children about tastes, smells and how healthy foods can be prepared and served. These discussions can be the “vehicle for teaching them about nutrition”, she says. So point out how broccoli looks like a tree or how various fruits and vegetables have colors that match a rainbow, and even let them get involved in the kitchen.
3. Change your self-talk
Little ears are always listening, and if parents have an unhealthy relationship with food or their weight, their children will pick up on that. Research has repeatedly shown that children, and especially daughters, are vulnerable to their mothers’ perceptions about food and their own body image, possibly even associating Mom’s dieting with their own need to restrict or manipulate their eating habits. Learning to be easygoing about food and related health issues isn’t just good for Mom but also good for the watching kids.
4. Promote balance
Going to Grandma’s house may mean ice cream and cookies for lunch, but parents don’t need to paint that as a negative experience. Castle says children can grasp the concept of balance and moderation. You can talk about how Grandma’s house is a great diversion from the norm, where we get treats we wouldn’t normally have, but you don’t need to bash Grandma’s choices.
“We can sometimes have all the foods we want to have, and we don’t have to be afraid and feel guilty if we eat them,” Castle says. “I think that equally important to raising children who choose to eat healthy is raising children who enjoy eating, and have a good appreciation of how food can interact with their bodies and have a positive place in their lives.”
5. Create opportunities, not pressure
Picky eaters can be the bane of health-conscious parents, but pressure and tension have no place at the dinner table. Research indicates that pressuring or bargaining children into eating their vegetables, for instance, only backfires, making them dislike those foods even more and even dread coming to the dinner table. Instead, relax. Sometimes it’s merely a phase, and at other times it may simply be a matter of taste.
“For some parents, it’s a reminder to say: Not every kid is going to like every food on the planet,” Castle says. “So, get that idea out of your head.”
But don’t let that pickiness dictate what is served. Removing vegetables from the table is the absolute worst thing you can do. Offer healthful foods and be patient. Castle says it’s almost a matter of desensitizing picky eaters to the presence of these foods. Continue to serve them, create opportunities for children to explore new healthy foods, and eventually they will come around.
Learning about food should be enjoyable
Food is fun, even when it’s healthy, and the youngest children are at a ripe age for grasping the enjoyable nature of eating well. From indulging their young senses in brightly colored produce to sharing time at the family table, healthy, lasting habits are based in pleasurable, low-stress experiences.