How can I encourage healthy eating habits in my children?

We know from research that obesity, once established, is very hard to treat. Therefore, prevention is key. To help prevent children from developing weight problems, parents should put a lot of thought into how they feed their children starting at a young age. However, most of the common wisdom and strategies with which we were raised may actually cause more harm than good. It takes a big rethinking of the way we approach food with our children to establish healthful eating behaviors!

The list below is based on a large body of literature that finds that large portions and eating poor quality foods is associated with obesity. However, too much parental control and restriction of foods is also associated with obesity, as it overrides the child’s ability to self-regulate her own intake. This makes it hard to maintain the right level of control over your child’s eating habits!

The focus of this particular response is on toddlers and preschoolers, but these rules can be applied to everyone.

Top 10 things parents can to do help their young children be good eaters

  1. Be good role models! Think about how you want your child to eat and eat that way yourself.
  2. Keep mealtimes a positive, fun experience.
  3. Never criticize your child for (or even comment on) how much or little he eats.
  4. Your child is good about knowing how much he needs to eat, simply supply healthy options at regular times. Let him decide if and how much he wants to eat.
  5. Never try to get your child to eat more or less than he wants (this is true for quantity of food and for a type of food, like vegetables), especially not by using bribes or distractions.
  6. Food should not be given as a reward or to comfort a child when he is upset. For celebrations, make sure there are other ways to celebrate than just with food.
  7. Do not allow watching television during meals or snacks.
  8. Sit with your child and have family meals as often as possible. Model healthy eating and appropriate portion sizes.
  9. Have dessert sometimes but not every day. Ask your child whether he wants to eat the dessert with the meal or afterwards.
  10. To help your child learn to regulate how much he eats based on fullness, start with a small portion, but allow him to request additional helpings until he is full.

I know, I know. All of you are looking at my dessert tip and thinking I’m crazy. My husband thought so too when I proposed letting my daughter have dessert first. He quickly became a convert when he saw her set aside a cupcake in favor of her real dinner when it arrived. She loves sweets but can stop eating them when she no longer wants more. I believe she is truly  learning to stop eating when she is not hungry – something that plagues most adults. This tip goes against everything we have been taught, but is actually quite useful.

Other tips for encouraging healthy eaters

  • Avoid juice. Juice is high in sugar and low in nutrients. A glass of water and a piece of fruit is better.
  • Present a fruit and vegetable at every meal. Kids need to see and experience new foods a lot of times before accepting them. It may take a long time for your child to try or eat them, but eventually they will!
  • Don’t tell your child how to eat his food. This means not saying things like “have a bite of this before having a bite of that,” or “eat more of your vegetables.”

I try very hard to follow these rules in our house. Let me be clear, despite this, my daughter is not a perfect eater! I wish she would eat more vegetables and try more types of food. However, my attitude is that I would rather sacrifice “perfect nutrition” in the short term to help form a person who eats in response to hunger, eats many foods in moderation, and can self-regulate in the long term.


Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.
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