Nutrition: Encouraging healthy eating habits

My sister has a two year old who won't eat much and she is constantly trying to force feed him. My brother has an eight year old who is overweight and he gives her cookies when she gets upset. I am 39 weeks pregnant and don't want to inflict bad eating habits onto my child. Can you share your opinion on how parents can encourage a healthy attitude toward food in their children?


Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

What a terrific question. All the nutrition knowledge in the world doesn't make up for a distorted attitude towards food. Developing healthy eating habits in a child will last a lifetime -- and will probably help to make it a long lifetime.

Learn about foods and nutrition: Do you know which foods promote health and in what quantities your child needs them? Learn how to prepare and present them in tasty and nutritious ways. A child presented with appropriate, nutritious foods, will come to prefer them over junk foods.

Healthy eating habits do start in childhood. Two good books include "The Yale Guide to Children's Nutrition" by William V. Tamborlane, MD, Editor, and "Child of Mine, Feeding with Love and Good Sense" by Ellyn Satter.

Be a role model. After all, children are imitators. The examples you set in your eating habits and attitudes toward food will crossover to your children. If they often witness you sipping diet sodas at meals, how will they learn that milk (or an equivalent) is an important food? If they only see you eat as you run out the door, how will they know that sitting down at a family meal is good -- not only for nutritional health, but also for social and emotional well-being? If they see you eating every time you are sad, they may learn that food is a way to deal with emotions -- a bad habit that is poor both nutritionally and emotionally.

Be sure to respect individual differences. Each child comes into this world with a unique body and an individual approach toward food. If you have a tiny, thin child who would rather play than eat, than you will need to adapt, since growth and stature are determined mostly by genes. Don't try to force feed him in an attempt to 'fatten' him up, or make him stay unreasonably long at the table.

Just as adults have individual food preferences, so do children. You wouldn't force you husband to eat a plateful of lima beans if you knew he didn't like them, nor should you do the same to your child. You can help introduce your child to a variety of new foods, but once those efforts have been made, food preferences should be honored.

Do not be overly permissive, nor overly managing. Learning to eat healthy foods, and developing a healthy attitude toward eating, is a skill that must be learned with guidance. Forcing a child to eat more or less than he wants can backfire.

Giving rewards for eating is a form of forcing. Studies have shown that a child is more likely to go back to a new food if he is NOT rewarded, rather than if he is. In fact, according to Dr. Leann Birch, a child is less likely to like a certain food if obtaining a reward is the end goal. The same thing occurs if he has to drink his milk before be can watch TV, or eat his egg before going out to play.

Studies at Duke University have shown that the more parents controlled and restricted their children's eating, the fatter they were. They speculate that parental over-management takes away from the child's ability to manage themselves; therefore, when parents aren't around to supervise, kids don't have themselves to fall back on and they may eat too much.

Set specific meal and snack times. A child who is not allowed to eat all day long, but who can depend on scheduled meals and snacks grows up slimmer than a child allowed to eat constantly. A set eating schedule also gives a child a sense of stability and security.

It is a good idea to divide the responsibility of eating. For example, the parent is responsible for buying and presenting healthy foods and the child is responsible for eating them.

A baby is born with an innate ability to judge how much he needs to eat. What he isn't born with is the knowledge of what he should be eating. Therefore, it is your job to take your knowledge of food and nutrition and provide healthy meals and snacks. For a baby, that means breastfeeding or choosing an appropriate formula, and then letting the baby eat as much or as little as they want. For a toddler, it means presenting foods in a nurturing and structured atmosphere, and then letting her choose how much, and which of those foods she will eat.

For younger children, food battles can be avoided if you present them with limited choices. For example, it is better at snack time to ask if they want a banana or a yogurt rather than letting them select what they want to eat. Allowing your child some responsibility helps them to grown up knowing how to manage food.

Be sure to create a relaxed atmosphere at meals. Remain patient and tolerant of your child's behavior, and set realistic expectations based on their age. A two-year-old will squirm, but an eight-year-old should be held to gentle, firm limits regarding his table behavior.

Encourage normal eating: Normal eating means eating when you are hungry, and stopping when you are full. It means being in touch with internal body cues and responding to them. It means learning which foods are healthy food choices, and choosing them most of the time, but also allowing yourself foods simply for pleasure once in a while. Normal eating is enjoyable, healthful, flexible and adaptable. By encouraging normal eating you are encouraging healthy attitudes towards food.

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