Shaping Children’s Habits- Eating Patterns

by Margaret Stoklosa

In addition to appropriate activity levels, a child’s health is dependent on consuming nutrient dense and varied food offerings.  Given that the adult responsible for the child needs to be involved in this process, stocking and offering healthy food is within their purview and directly influences what and how a child eats at home. A 2018 review of factors influencing eating behavior in children indicated that parental modeling of food choices, as well as exposures to various tastes and flavors positively affects a child’s developing preferences (1). Additionally, the environment and attitudes surrounding food consumption are also impactful and should be examined.

Research indicates that the following practices can increase the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and help to avoid obesogenic habits in children:

  • Eat meals as a family
    • Turn off and tune out all electronic devices
    • Engage in conversation to initiate connection
    • Encourage involvement with both selection of foods as well as preparation of meals
    • Model eating behavior via dietary diversity (incorporate new foods), as well as portion control
    • Expose children to varied tastes and flavors, offering foods more than once if denied (it takes up to 25 exposures for a food preference to develop)
  • Encourage healthy practices
    • Promote adequate sleep and relaxation via modeling
    • Encourage talking through stress versus eating through stress
    • Stock healthful food options
    • Reduce unhealthful eating exposures by preplanning meals or modeling food choices when eating out
    • Reduce screen exposure by encouraging activity and meal involvement
    • Make children feel like they are part of the household (e.g., by assigning chores)
    • Discuss hunger and fullness and help children identify these while eating
    • Encourage adequate chewing (i.e., 20-30 times per bite)
  • Involve children in food decisions/ preparation
    • Take children grocery shopping and explain the healthfulness of the perimeter foods versus the aisle foods
    • Encourage children to search for and pick a healthy meal to share weekly
    • Involve children in meal preparation, setup and cleanup
    • Give children a phytonutrient spectrum checklist for daily tracking
    • Encourage self-regulation by reducing rather than restricting unhealthful foods
  • Celebrate without using food rewards

Family involvement in eating is so vital that teens who eat family meals are less likely to engage in detrimental activities such as smoking and drinking (1). Additionally, adults who ate family meals as a teen consume more healthful, whole foods such as fruits and vegetables than those who did not partake in such meals (1).

(1)   PMID: 29857549

It is never too late to change your child’s (or your) eating environment.  If you need nutritional support as a parent of a child or for yourself, please reach out to schedule a consultation with our in-house nutritionist.

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