10 Ways for Parents to Teach Healthy Eating Habits
Every person has a genetic endowment for body size and shape. As a result, children eating normally can grow at very different rates and arrive at a variety of heights, weights and degrees of fatness or muscularity.
Typically, children’s growth tends to occur predictably, as in channels identified on the World Health Organization’s pediatric growth grids for 2 through 20 year olds.
A child may be “on track” in either the 10th to 25th percentile for weight for age or at the 85th or higher percentile for weight. In some cases, a child’s growth will fall below — or exceed — their typical growth channel. Since this can occur, it is wise to evaluate the eating habits of all children and teens.
Some young people are over-eating and some are under-eating, but we should not make assumptions without a narrative about eating behaviors associated with weight changes as part of an expert nutritional assessment.
Model healthy eating habits
Parents can choose to seek guidance from a trained expert if they desire. If a complete nutrition assessment takes place, and suggests that weight gained is excessive for the child, then recommendations can be made. The goal would be to correct disruptions to eating homeostasis for the child — rather than change the body through weight loss or stringent exercise programs.
Parents can play a key role in helping their children learn how to self-regulate eating and activity. The following tips may be helpful:
- Provide structured and consistent meals and snacks
- Permit children and teens to use physical hunger and fullness to decide how much to eat at structured, consistent meal and snack times.
- Encourage consumption of a variety of foods
- Model a neutral attitude about foods
- Provide ample opportunities for varied and enjoyable physical activity
Unfortunately, children, and the adults who care for them, may become unnecessarily concerned about weight during the growth spurt. In particular, they may respond in unfortunate ways if weight reaches or exceeds the 85th percentile.
Promote a positive body image
In our thinness-obsessed culture, children and teens growing normally, which may include developing body fat in their midsection as a phase during puberty, may misinterpret their growth as “getting fat.” This can be furthered, in part, by unfairly comparing their physiques to those of adult celebrities who are long past puberty. These comparisons, and the expressed anxiety of adult caregivers, may inspire weight-loss dieting or harsh exercising to try to arrive at a body different from either the normal body of a developing teen or the individual genetic endowment.
In a culture promoting diets and multiple nutrition myths, parents can help their children develop healthy eating habits by doing the following:
- Supporting normal growth
- Teaching children that good nutrition is more simple than complex
- Explaining why dieting isn’t necessary
- Explaining how to trust their bodies’ physical hunger and fullness cues that can tell them when and how much to eat and when to stop
- Ensuring multiple ways of expressing and soothing emotions
It is also important to teach children that we must be accountable to our body’s needs for core nutrients from a variety of foods. And, importantly, that we may also regularly enjoy, in good health and without guilt, certain foods that are eaten simply for pleasure. This balanced approach to eating can help to foster normal eating for the lifetime. It can also help to prevent disordered eating behaviors that may turn into full-blown eating disorders in certain vulnerable children and teens.
Lisa Geraud MA, MS, RD, LMFT