How can you encourage your children to eat healthy?

As parents, it can be hard to get the balance right when it comes to feeding your children. You may be a hard working single mother that opts for time efficiency over home cooked meals, or perhaps you find it too mentally challenging to get your kids to eat their veggies. Whatever the reason is, if you’re noticing that your children prefer fries over fiber and soda over h2O, it’s your duty to encourage them to eat healthier for their own health and happiness.

A large scale study conducted in Australia asked 119 children and 17 parents about their diet to get an understanding of why certain children are more likely to choose unhealthier food options and avoid nutrient dense foods. The researchers summarized the findings into some key themes: information and awareness, contradiction between knowledge and behavior, lifestyle balance, local environment and barriers to a healthy lifestyle, amongst others. This information can be used as a basis of why children may eat unhealthily and what you can do as parents to encourage healthier options.

Information and awareness

Children like to know things, it’s a tale as old as time and it’s a part of human nature. If you ask someone to do something without explaining why, it is not often well received, regardless of whether you’re six years old or 50. If you want your child to finish the vegetables on their plate, explain why.

The aforementioned study compared this point to smoking: a child is more likely to know the negative impact of smoking rather than the impact of eating unhealthy food. This is supported in a recent study published in the journal of Current Obesity Reportsthat found that young children were more likely to eat vegetables if they received more nutrition education, exposure and sensory learning strategies. When compared to anti-smoking initiatives that use visceral imagery in advertising campaigns, the impact of not eating vegetables isn’t yet entirely clear to children.

Contradiction between knowledge and behavior

As parents you want the best for your children, above addressing your own needs. You may make a home cooked, wholesome meal for your children but for yourself it’s a fast food take out or a candy bar. Even though you’re making the effort for your children, they find it difficult to differentiate between your standards for them versus your standards for yourself. If you’re not adhering to the dietary requirements you’ve demanded for your child – why would they adhere to them either?

A study published in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics examined the influence of parental eating habits on children. The study found that children mirror their parents, particularly with regards to their diet. This, they concluded, was due to genetic predispositions and repeated exposure of unhealthy foods, and the social modelling element of the family system. During pregnancy and early life, if the mother is repeatedly consuming very high sugar foods, it’s more likely that her child will have a craving for sugar, as explored in a study by the Journal of Nutrition Education.

A study found that children naturally chose to increase their consumption of fruits, vegetables and dairy after observing adults consume these foods. So if you want to eat your children to eat healthier, you too should eat healthier.

Lifestyle balance

When it comes to balance, children should understand the energy balance model, i.e. energy intake needs to equal energy expenditure to remain at a stable weight. If more energy is consumed than expended, energy is unbalanced and weight will be gained. The study conducted in Australia found that the majority of children believed that a small amount of exercise will counteract poor food choices, with one child quoting that they ‘walk to the shop every day to buy hot chips – is it healthy or unhealthy?’.

Children don’t know unless you teach them, and it should be taught that a balance between exercise and food intake must be achieved to stay at a healthy weight. This is likely to encourage children to seek healthier food choices when given the choice and reasoning.

However, it doesn’t mean that all unhealthy food is off the market. When it comes to balance, parents should try to promote healthy food as the standard diet and make exceptions for treat, nutrient poor food. If this is reversed and junk food becomes the standard, what motivation does your child have to eat their vegetables?

Local environment

It has been shown in numerous studies that the food environment of the child predicts their weight. If a child has frequent exposure to fast food restaurants, research shows that they are more likely to consume these foods and crave them. Parents often don’t realize how many advertisements children see on an hourly basis for junk food options. Advertisements that are specifically targeting children by using friendly animal figures, bright colors and emotive language that speaks directly to them.

A study that examined this phenomenon had children watch a cartoon that contained food advertisements and were then offered a snack. The children who watched the cartoon with food ads consumed 45 percent more than the children who watched the cartoon without ads. Ultimately, children are easily influenced when it comes to the appeal of consuming unhealthy food options. So limit your child’s screen time or opt for media that doesn’t contain advertisements like Netflix.

Barriers to a healthy lifestyle

Question why your child doesn’t want to consume healthy foods. What are the barriers? Do they have access to healthy food? Do they have too much access to unhealthy food? The best way to improve the problem is to seriously consider what has got your child there in the first place. Be realistic and truthful with yourself, have you upheld the standards you require for your child? Have you encouraged vegetable consumption or agreed to a drive thru one too many times.

For the benefit of your child, try and remove the barriers that are blocking your child from eating healthily. Remove the junk food from the house and replace with fruits and healthy snacks, create home cooked meals that are nutrient and flavor dense, be the change you want your child to see.

  • Author, Emilina Lomas is a qualified nutritionist and freelance writer originally from London but has now relocated to Orange County, California.  She completed her undergraduate degree at a top London University in medical anthropology (BSc) and wrote a dissertation about consumption patterns and obesity in the US.  She then completed her master’s degree in nutrition to become a qualified nutritionist.

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