What I’ve Learned About Raising Healthy Eaters

We've got tips for raising healthy eaters

Raising healthy eaters. We all want to do it, but sometimes, it seems like an elusive task despite our best efforts. Here’s what we’ve learned about raising healthy eaters.

As parents, feeding our children is one of the main aspects of our caretaking, and of course, we want to do it right. Unfortunately, what should be a simple and pleasant task can turn into a confusing experience. Advice from nutrition experts can be conflicting, and the food industry adds a whole other twist to the situation. I have seen many well-meaning parents get so caught up in the do-this and don’t-do-thats of what is supposedly “good” or “bad” that the simple pleasure of sharing a meal with their children disappears. Instead, mealtimes become a source of stress for the family. What is a parent to do? How can we go about raising healthy eaters without destroying family bond of the meal?

I’d like to invite you to take a step back, and keep the end goal in mind: raising healthy eaters . When we look at that as the light at the end of the tunnel, we can take a holistic and pragmatic approach.

Related: Empowering Parents: How To Help Picky Eaters

First, let’s define a healthy eater.  She (or he) is a person who has a positive and sound relationship with food and eating. She knows that eating is one life’s daily activities because food is fuel for our bodies. But it’s also one of life’s pleasures so she doesn’t obsess about it. She enjoys eating, and is conscious of what she chooses to eat, and why. She pays attention to how much she eats, listening to her body’s hunger and satiety cues, thus she eats the right amount for her own body’s needs. She eats many different foods, and likes trying new ones. She knows how to plan meals, and shop for food. She sees cooking as in integral part of good fueling her body and therefore, goodeating, and has the skills to cook real meals.

How do you raise a healthy eater?

So, how do you raise a child with that mindset?

First, by remembering that feeding your children well is about much more than specific nutrients. Don’t get caught up in the hype of the newest kid-friendly products. Your children can, and should be expected to eat what you eat. Understand that your children need time to develop their tastes, and that just because they don’t like a new food the first time, you will offer that food again (and again and again…up to 11 times is what is recommended to establish valid dislikes and likes). A variety of good, wholesome real food is ideally the basis for what you offer them. Help them to see food as natural and clean food, not as a package on the shelf. Visit the farmer’s market or start a little garden with them, giving them the opportunity to see the miracle of where the food comes from, and to taste it fresh off the plant.

Second, and equally as important as what you feed them, is how you feed them. The food environment is powerful.  A positive atmosphere around food and eating will go a long way towards guiding your children into developing a positive relationship with food. Good feeding includes having family meals as often as possible, and minimizing the times you plunk your children down (in front of the television) with a snack while you finish up your chores. We know, we know…it’s hard sometimes because you feel like you’re always on to the next thing on your to-do list. But, this is important and it goes with expectations that go along with your children’s stage of development.

Related: Is Your Child A Picky Eater Or A Resistant Eater?

Yes, you may be able to have longer pleasant conversations at the table with your school-aged child, but you may need to stay calm when your little one is wiggly and you must excuse him from the table after only ten minutes. Good feeding is also about trusting that your children will eat as much as they need for their body, not forcing them to eat “just three more bites” or refusing them second helpings because you think they have eaten enough.  Help them to learn to listen to their bodies’ internal cues of hunger and satiety. Be a good role model, and eat with pleasure and purpose.

Nurturing a good relationship with food is also about finding creative ways to discipline and reward, other than with using food. Poor behavior does not merit having dessert withheld, and good behavior is not rewarded with candy. Please, please, please do not reinforce those concepts.

Raising healthy eaters includes sharing the joys, and messes, of cooking with your children. Invite them into the kitchen so they see, touch, and smell what goes into a good meal. They will  gain skills that will last a lifetime, and their self-esteem will get a boost as the see their wonderful creations on the table for the family to enjoy. It’s okay if the recipe doesn’t turn out as you thought it would; cooking is lots of experimentation anyway. But when you let your children take part in their own meals, they’ll have ownership. This will encourage them more than you can imagine, especially if you start letting them help when they’re young and willing to try new things because they’ve not established preconceived notions yet.

Raising healthy eaters is about offering more than just nutrients and food. Good feeding leads to good eating, and good eating is a wonderful pleasure in life. Feeding our children is about nourishment, relationship, communication and community. Dial down the stress, and just enjoy eating with your children- you will be giving them a precious gift.

Photo: Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

9 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About Raising Healthy Eaters”

  1. I strive for not using food as a reward/punishment. I strive to encourage him (7yo) to only eat until he feels full/satisfied.

    But what to do when he hardly eats anything, then asks for dessert? Or few minutes later wants a snack?

    What to do if he doesn’t like what I make and wants something else?

    Any insight would be appreciated… 🙂

      1. Great article!

        Read Ellyn Satter books and checkout the Mealtime Hostage blog. Both are fabulous reasources and will answer your questions!

    1. Hi Krista. Sounds like you are on the right track with your son. Your questions are excellent ones, but will be hard to answer in a few sentences. I promise I will address them in upcoming blog posts for you and the others who also commented on this, as well as the many parents who probably have similar issues! The dessert question, and dealing with “i don’t like it” are two of the most common recurring themes for the families i work with. Stay tuned! In the meantime, yes, try looking up EllynSatterInstitute.org for additional reading.

    2. I have this very same exact question. My daughter asks me how much she needs to eat (meaning…in order to get dessert) at every meal! I just want her to eat a good, healthy dinner, I don’t really care how many bites. So not knowing what to say, I tell her she needs to eat at least half of what I put on her plate. I decide what goes on her plate, she decides what she eats. But what if she doesn’t like any of it?! It happens all the time.

  2. Mealtimes are terrible here. We make dinner mostly from scratch, mostly whole foods, and mostly eat together (this is the only meal all this happens LOL). My son just doesn’t eat! He’s so active; I can’t figure out how his body is growing!

    Even when he likes the food he’s usually distracted enough to spend an hour eating any meal, but if he doesn’t like it or refuses to try it… ARGH! We have little junk food in our house and don’t usually eat dessert because sugar turns him into a monster. He’ll just skip dinner or maybe a bite or 2. He might want more food right before bed or not.

    Oatmeal with nuts & raisons for breakfast, usually a nut butter sandwich & fruit for lunch. Semi healthy snacks provided by school. How do I know if he’s eating enough & the right foods & not continue to create stress & struggle over this? Maybe I should teach him to make a nut butter sandwich & let him eat that if he wants.

  3. Meal times for kids are SO different here than in my childhood years in Peru. We ate whatever my mom made, and we weren’t poor or starving, it was just the culture. We respect the food because we know how hard it is to have it on most people’s table. We would see the farmers works so hard to bring good produce, animals getting killed (I never saw them getting killed just the before (alive) and after (on my plate) it really made me think as a kid…wow it’s hard work to get a meal on my table!

    Dessert after dinner every night is not in our culture at all, that is not to say Peruvians don’t indulge in desserts…oh we do! and they are so delicious! we just had it whenever we would go out with the family, special events, birthdays, etc …but our food is so good that who doesn’t want to eat Peruvian food?! It’s not an obligation, it’s a privilege.

    Food over there is so tasty, peruvians are known for their famous rotisserie chicken, something that here in the U.S. people can’t duplicate because the main ingredient, chicken, is so different (hormones, etc). I think one of the biggest problems is that food in the states is just different tasting because the land has been overused so much, and have pesticides, even if it is organically grown, who knows what was in that soil before…the flavor of vegetables, fruits and meat has a huge impact on how kids eat…anyone coming from a non Monsanto country can TOTALLY taste the difference, it is incredible! Poor little babies go from delicious breast milk to tasteless food, no wonder they prefer the cookies, and cheetos, they are overloaded with flavor, synthetically made for most processed snacks, but oh well…this has inspired me to learn how to cook with whatever I find in my pantry, and start a garden…My little one enjoys all my experiments 🙂

  4. We have tried to strive for Balance, Balance, Balance when it comes to food. We probably still do more sugar and carbs than we should, and we certainly have a few foods the kids won’t tolerate (I’ve gotten very creative with kale and parsley). But, we have a few rules that have worked well for us in getting our little ones to eat more healthy:

    1. Veggies are always first. After everyone finishes their salad, I will bring in the pasta. If you’re STARVING and dinner isn’t quite ready, I’d be happy to give you a bowl of carrots and broccoli to snack on until we’re all ready to eat.

    2. Fruit is dessert food. Eat it last. If we have fruit/cookies/whatever for dessert, everyone may have one IF they’ve had a good balance of growing foods for dinner. If you haven’t put enough good growing foods in your body, then you’re not allowed to add extra less-healthy food to your system, because I’m your mother and it is my job to make sure your body gets what it needs to grow.

    3. Everyone has to try everything at every meal. We won’t force you to eat something you hate, but you must take at least one bite of everything on your plate.

    4. The “try everything” rule applies to things you already know you dislike. Just because you didn’t like it before doesn’t mean you won’t like it now. Someday you’ll try it and realize that you like it, so taste it again – today might be the day.

    5. If you don’t like the menu, tough. That’s what we’re having for dinner tonight. You don’t have to eat it, but I will not make you a different meal, either. When you are hungry enough, you will eat this. (And do not ask Daddy for bread and butter after Mommy is asleep, either.)

    6. You are welcome and encouraged to try everything on the table. I will warn you when I think you won’t like something (i.e., if it’s too spicy for you), but you have permission to try it.

    7. Every day has different flavors. I know you’re not a big fan of tacos, but tomorrow I will make you tofu. Eat this today and you’ll have something you prefer tomorrow. If you have an aversion to this food item, I promise I will make it less often, and won’t make you eat more than a “no thank you” bite of anything. (I find that having respect for their real food aversions, while not catering to them, keeps the ‘I don’t like it’ whining to a minimum.)

    8. Meat is not food. (That’s a specific rule to our house, but it does help with healthy eating. The possibilities for eating garbage food are a bit more limited in scope, especially at restaurants, once you do away with the “chicken fingers, hot dogs and bacon” options.)

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