Three Experts: Helping Kids Choose Healthy Foods
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Three Experts: Helping Kids Choose Healthy Foods

As parents, we have a real interest in helping our kids develop healthy habits, especially choosing nutritious foods to eat. We know that choosing healthy foods will likely help kids maintain a healthy weight and prevent common illnesses related to poor nutrition. But what are the best ways to encourage healthy eating? We asked three experts—a registered dietitian, a child development specialist, and a pediatrician—for their top tips.

Right from the Start  As a registered dietitian at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, Kristin Irace, RD, recommends involving kids right from the start with meal planning. There are so many ways to give kids a little input. That input can pay off in interest and engagement.

You can ask your child to choose a meal or two to incorporate into the week’s menu or choose a vegetable to include with their favorite meal. Pick out an exotic fruit that neither of you has ever tried before, and see what it’s like. Get a cookbook down off the shelf, and ask them to choose a new recipe to make. When it comes time to cook, rope your kid in. Cooking skills are the foundation of lifelong healthy eating. Even if you don’t know much yourself, you can learn together and have a great time.

“Not only do these activities make eating healthfully more fun for your child; it also makes them feel in control,” Irace said.

Have a Seat  Once your child has been given a little input into what will be served, ensure that they are suitably hungry when they get to the table. You can do this by serving meals on a schedule. Avoid having snacks available constantly. Drinks, other than water, should be mostly avoided between meals. Having food always at the ready decreases appetite and the willingness to try new foods. Have your child follow the same mealtime routine for each meal, if possible. Limit distractions, like TV, which can make it difficult to concentrate.

“A scheduled routine helps your children understand what they can expect and what is expected of them,” said Jennie Moon, a child development specialist with Early Intervention and Children’s Integrated Services. “It helps them develop good eating habits and appropriate social skills too.”

Model, model, model.  Young children learn behavior less by listening and more by watching, says Meghan Gunn, MD, pediatrician and medical director at SVMC Pediatrics. Since their earliest days, our children have been watching and imitating us, so they pick up our behavioral cues much more readily than our verbal ones.

At mealtimes, set a good example by making a balanced plate of healthy foods for yourself. Make conversation with your child. Praise them for eating nicely, using their utensils and napkin, and trying new things. When you can, try to ignore undesirable behavior, just as you would from the next table over in a restaurant. If you must, redirect and move on. Mealtime is a lot more pleasant for everyone without doling out ultimatums or repeatedly prompting, coaxing, and begging.

By giving children choices, making healthy foods available regularly, and setting an example, we are able to greatly increase the number of healthy foods our kids will try and, eventually, like. The behaviors they learn will help them eat healthfully for life.

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