How can I help my child develop healthy eating habits?

Encouraging healthy eating habits in a child -- especially a finicky eater -- can be a challenge, but the USDA’s new food guide in the form of a colorful, divided plate may help parents help kids make healthy choices.

The new USDA food guide, known as MyPlate and available online at, was designed to replace the old Food Guide Pyramid, which contained vertical stripes to represent the five food groups plus fats and oils.

The new divided plate features four sections for vegetables, fruits, grains and protein, and a side dish of dairy. Half of the plate is fruits and vegetables, with the vegetable section slightly larger than the fruit section. On the other half of the plate, grains are slightly larger than proteins.

“I think the plate sends a great message and is a good guidepost for every parent, family and individual for what you need to stay healthy and well,” says WendelinSlusser, MD, medical director of the FIT for Healthy Weight Program at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA.

As with any part of raising children, no one does a perfect job with nutrition—not even nutrition professionals. As a parent, grandparent or adult caregiver, you can help to raise healthy eaters during these critical years by doing your best to:

  • Serve regular, balanced meals and snacks with a variety of nutrient-rich foods.
  • Provide calm, pleasant meal times where adults and children can talk together.
  • Allow children to use their internal signals to decide how much and what to eat.
  • Explore a variety of flavors and foods from different cultures and cuisines.
  • Share an appreciation for healthful food, lovingly prepared and shared with others.
  • Make simple food safety, like washing hands, part of every eating occasion.
  • Teach basic skills for making positive food choices away from home.
  • Find credible food and nutrition resources when you don't know the answer.
Ms. Vandana  R. Sheth
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Recognize that it is your responsibility as a parent to prepare and serve the food to your child and your child's responsibility as to how much he/she eats. Also realize that it can take anywhere from 10-20 exposures to a new food before developing a palate. After 3 failed attempts at introducing a new food take a break and try again in a few days/weeks. Encourage your child to enjoy a wide variety of foods, colors, textures and flavors by modeling eating behavior and leading by example. Explore the grocery store or local market together to select new foods. Serve small, bite-size portions of a new food with familiar foods at the meal. Encourage and praise rather than bribe. Recognize age-appropriate portion size of foods that are being served. Keep family mealtime positive. Use the Choose My Plate icon as an easy visual guide/tool to promote healthy eating at meals.

Here are some tricks to keep your kids healthy:

  • Offer new rewards - Reward good behavior with fun things to do (bike ride, walk around the block or a trip to a playground) or with healthy snacks (a banana, some yogurt, grapes or trail mix) instead of junk food.
  • Control their portions - Serve proper portions during family meals so your kids won't overeat.
  • Make gradual changes - Giving up your favorite soda or chips won't be easy. Make small changes by drinking half a cup of soda and half a cup of water. Let yourself throw away what’s left of the bad stuff, so it’s easier to switch to the good stuff.
  • Grocery shop together - Involve children in your grocery shopping so they are familiar with the process of stocking healthy food choices in your household.
  • Offer praise - When a child makes a good food choice on their own or chooses activity over inactivity, you should recognize them! Everybody likes to feel good about something they’ve done well, and kids are no exception.

This content originally appeared on Blackman Family Physician's blog.

You can help your child develop healthy eating habits by showing them portion control. Teach your kids to take small amounts at first. Let them serve themselves at dinner to create the healthy habit.

You can help children learn to be aware of what they eat by developing healthy eating habits, looking for ways to make favorite dishes healthier and reducing calorie-rich temptations.

There's no great secret to healthy eating. To help your children and family develop healthy eating habits:

  • Provide plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole-grain products.
  • Include low-fat or non-fat milk or dairy products.
  • Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils and beans for protein.
  • Serve reasonably-sized portions.
  • Encourage your family to drink lots of water.
  • Limit sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Limit consumption of sugar and saturated fat.

Look for ways to make favorite dishes healthier. With just a few changes, the recipes you may prepare regularly and that your family enjoys can be healthier and just as satisfying.

Remove calorie-rich temptations. Although everything can be enjoyed in moderation, reducing the calorie-rich temptations of high-fat and high-sugar or salty snacks can also help your children develop healthy eating habits. Instead, only allow your children to eat them sometimes so that they truly will be treats. Here are examples of low-fat and low-sugar snacks that are 100 calories or less:

  • A medium-size apple
  • A medium-size banana
  • 1 cup blueberries
  • 1 cup grapes
  • 1 cup carrots, broccoli or bell peppers with 2 tbsp. hummus

Keep an eye on your child’s eating habits. What do your kids love to eat? What won’t they eat? I also want to know whether you’ve noticed any change in your child’s appetite. In private, I remind parents to keep their antennae up for clues that their child might be trying to lose weight in an unhealthy way, especially during adolescence. The desire to fit in with their peers, or achieve a body type that some kids associate with perfect beauty or ideal masculinity, can lead adolescents down a dangerous road of unhealthy eating in an attempt to control their weight.

Dangerous techniques include avoiding meals, fasting, and using food substitutes, weight loss supplements, caffeine and smoking as a way to curb appetite. Another indicator of an unhealthy eating habit is hording food—you might find stockpiles of food you weren’t aware of in closets or backpacks. This could indicate that your child is ashamed of eating in front of others, or has developed a binge-purge routine.

These behaviors are more common in girls than boys, and although some parents think their child’s need to diet is fueled by Hollywood actors and comic book heroes, body dissatisfaction may stem from someone a little closer to home. There is a strong link between a mother’s attitudes about food and body image and her daughter. In other words, one poor self-image begets another.

So, what do you do about it? Try to be the best role model you can be. Compliment your child when they make an effort to look good and don’t put yourself down. Most important, don’t try to enforce a specific diet. If you need to control your own weight, do so in a safe, positive manner. Show your child how eating more fruits and vegetables and decreasing fats and sugars is safer and more effective than the fad diet-of-the-week.

I never recommend dieting to a child or teen who has a healthy body mass index (BMI). Rather than dieting, sensible eating and exercise is the way to go. Offer your children nutritious choices for meals and snacks and help them learn how to balance diet and physical activity.

From Good Kids, Bad Habits: The RealAge Guide to Raising Healthy Children by Jennifer Trachtenberg.

Good Kids, Bad Habits: The RealAge Guide to Raising Healthy Children

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.