By Jessica Goldbogen Harlan for Live Right Live Well
The next time you’re tempted by a bag of potato chips, check to see if your kids are around -- because the old adage “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work when it comes to teaching children healthy eating habits.
In a recent study, 120 children, age 2 to 6 years, were invited to shop for play food in a play grocery store stocked with everything from fruits and vegetables to sodas and junk food. What did the kids purchase? The same stuff they see their parents buying and eating.
“Parents need to be aware that the choices they make do have an impact on their kids, and kids start to learn food behaviors and patterns at a very early age,” says study leader Lisa Sutherland, Ph.D., of the Hood Center for Children and Families at Dartmouth College, in N.H.
Melinda Johnson, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, agrees. “Your child isn’t going to end up eating better than you do,” she says. So if you want him to eat well, “you have to eat the way you want your child to eat.”
To raise a kid who grows up loving broccoli and whole grains, consider the following:
Be a good role model As the study shows, kids will mirror your own eating habits. So let them see you eating whole-grain toast at breakfast, enjoying a piece of fruit for a snack and filling up on veggies at dinner. If you can’t give up your cookies and soda, try to eat them when the kids are in bed and keep them out of sight in your cupboard.
Combine favorites with the unfamiliar “Don’t just always serve their favorite food,” advises Johnson. “At a meal, mix their favorites with what you’re trying to challenge them with.” And don’t give up after the first time your child rejects a food. “Don’t force them [to eat it], but keep offering it to them,” says Sutherland. “You might have to [offer] new things eight times before a kid will eat it.”
Follow the “Rule of Three” At each meal, try to include at least three of the following food groups from the USDA food pyramid: grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat/beans. A snack can consist of two food groups.
Make grocery shopping a fun learning experience Let young children pick out their favorite fruits; older kids can learn math concepts, like finding the best value or comparing nutrition labels.
Involve kids in the kitchen Letting your children help with the cooking can give them a better understanding of food, notes Sutherland. Johnson agrees: “The more kids get involved, the more likely they’ll eat and appreciate the food once it shows up on their plate. Plus, you’re teaching them cooking skills.”
Allow for occasional junk Insisting that your children eat only healthy foods can backfire, leading to lunch-swapping and overindulging when you’re out of sight. Instead, teach them a healthy balance by allowing them to have the occasional treat, even if it’s something that’s not good for them. Johnson recommends a blend of 90 percent relatively healthy food and 10 percent junk food and other treats.
So put away the potato chips and instead invite your child to the kitchen to help you prepare a healthy snack, such as whole-wheat pita with hummus and carrot sticks. Not only will you both benefit today, but it will lay the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy eating for your child.
Jessica Goldbogen Harlan Jessica Goldbogen Harlan is an Atlanta-based writer and recipe developer specializing in nutrition and healthy eating. Jessica is the cooking equipment guide for About.com (online) and has written for numerous publications and Web sites, including Pilates Style, Arthritis Today, Clean Eating, Lime and iVillage.