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7 Steps to Healthy Eating Habits for Children

7 Steps to Healthy Eating Habits for Children

1. Start early. A basic biological fact: Kids will not crave foods they're not familiar with. As soon as your kid starts eating solid foods, really concentrate on healthy eating strategies: no added sugar or syrups, fewer than 4 grams of saturated fat per meal, no trans fat, and only 100% whole-grain foods. If your kid doesn't taste high-sugar foods such as candy, cereals, and soda, she won't grow to like them (and won't "Please, Mama?" for them all day long). We also recommend that you teach your child to look at nutrition labels as soon as she can read. But please don't make it an obsession.

2. Eat together. Of all the things you can do to influence the health of your child, perhaps the most important is to make family dinner a priority. Research shows that having family dinner more than twice a week can positively influence a child's waist size, eating behavior, school achievement, and overall psychological development. It's also a great opportunity to model table manners. The more family dinners, the better; see if you can manage at least five a week. You can also try family breakfast or other meals that suit everyone's schedule.

3. Talk smart. Get into the habit of talking about the healthy foods your child should be eating rather than dwelling on all the unhealthy ones she should avoid. You know what they say about temptation, especially when it comes to the forbidden Froot Loops.

4. Don't use food as a carrot -- even if it is a carrot. You should avoid using food as either a punishment or a reward, because it sends mixed signals to a child: "Do something good, and I get a doughnut!" Might seem nice at the time, but what message does that send? Good behavior is rewarded with bad food, a notion that hurts kids in the long run.

5. Don't avoid healthy fat. We've seen it happen: Parents have success on a low-fat diet, so they decide that their kids need to follow it, too. Not a great strategy. Kids need healthy fat for brain development.

6. No watch, no eat. After a long, hard day, it's tempting to just gather around the tube with your plates to watch the latest reality show. But it's not a good idea. Kids (and adults) eat much more, on average, in front of the TV than when they're sitting at the table. Why? They lose awareness of the sacredness of food, and the act becomes mindless -- a sure recipe for overeating. When you concentrate on eating, you can pay better attention to your body's signals that you're full. Not only that, but kids take about 150 fewer steps for every hour of TV they watch, so it's a double whammy: Eat more and burn less!

7. Consider a changeup. Some parents have success feeding their children their main meal at lunch rather than at dinner. Oftentimes, kids are so tired at night that feeding becomes more of a battle than it needs to be. It's a good strategy nutritionally because it ensures that they get at least one balanced meal for the day.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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