How to motivate children, ages 10-12, to eat healthier

You blink, and the baby in diapers is a ten-year-old, with definite opinions and (sometimes, maybe too often) a firmly made up mind about the negative value and utility of eating healthy foods. What’s a parent to do? 

Show them how, first of all. At the 10 to 12-year-old stage, most children are still largely concrete thinkers, just beginning to get into abstract and conceptual thought. For them to ‘translate’ the concept of healthy eating into moment-by-moment food choices and habits is challenging, often impossible, unless you demonstrate how it’s done. 

Avoid shaming them. Our subconscious minds work in counterintuitive and damaging ways when we are shamed, and when parents try to motivate children’s healthy behaviors by using shaming, it often produces exactly the opposite of what you are trying to do. However, this peculiar bend of the subconscious mind also works in your favor, if you speak value and blessing to your children. Words of love and value affect the subconscious mind in an equally powerful way, motivating people to make choices, including healthy food choices, that reflect and agree with that value. When you show, by words and actions, that your children and their bodies are valuable, they are far more likely to make food choices that honor their bodies’ intrinsic worth and value. 

Help them eat breakfast. For adults, skipping breakfast usually isn’t a big deal (in fact, some of us do better with the longer “fasting window”). But for growing youngsters, skipping breakfast interferes with their ability to think clearly, regulate emotions, and learn effectively. In fact, eating breakfast is one of the best things you can do to help them at school.  Busy schedules often mean that breakfast needs to be quick and easy, preferably portable. Consider making big batches of whole grain muffins and freezing them. In the morning, your child can grab one, toss it in the microwave or toaster oven and eat on the run if need be. Keep fresh fruit and yogurt readily available. Breakfast bars, if you buy those made with no added sugar or preservatives, are good to keep on hand for occasional use. And don’t limit your kids to traditional breakfast foods. A cup of soup or a sandwich on whole grain bread makes a delicious and satisfying breakfast. If sugary breakfast tarts and cereals are not available, they can’t eat them, so purge your cupboards and restock with healthier choices. 

Get creative with salads. When I was a youngster, salad meant iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and shredded carrots and cheese, served with bacon crumbs and a creamy dressing. I learned to eat it, but I never truly liked salad. That changed the first time I had a chef’s salad at an upscale restaurant. Dark leafy greens, walnuts, apples, and cheese with a raspberry vinaigrette. Wow! This is actually good. No wonder people like salads. I started experimenting and I discovered that there are many ways to make a salad, and most of them are better than the flavorless variety that I grew up with. Be creative. Remember that there are no rules for making a salad. All kinds of flavors are possible, even pizza toppings. 

Do food things together. Involve them in shopping and food preparation. It takes more time, initially, to teach them how to do it. Grocery lists and kitchen skills are crucial life skills and there is no better time to learn those skills. Practice evaluating produce to find the freshest and most flavorful. Learn to read labels and ferret out toxic additives. Get them involved in finding healthier substitutions for ingredients in favorite recipes, such as using a whole grain pie crust, fresh strawberries, and real whipped cream to make a strawberry pie. Or invest in fresh caught fish and make your own delicious home-made fish sticks. They won’t want to go back to fish-sticks-out-of-a-box. And neither will you! 

Frequent local farmers’ markets, roadside stands, ethnic grocery stores, and other non-chain food sellers. If you live in a rural or semi-rural area, you may be able to watch the cows being milked or help gather eggs fresh from the chickens. Not only does this teach an appreciation for where food comes from, once your child has tasted farm-fresh foods, they will be far more likely to want more. Involve them in choosing food and in cooking it when you get back home. Although this takes time and intentionality, and perhaps a bit more money, the payback is healthier food and a kid who is invested in liking it. 

My local city has ethnic food tours at least once a month. Several restaurants and other community venues have cooking classes that are open to all ages. These are great ways to ‘do food together’ with your ten to twelve-year-old. Some families make this a monthly, seasonal, or summer tradition, so that the event becomes a much anticipated and enjoyed treat. 

Make healthy normal. This is perhaps the most important, and often the hardest, practice you as a parent can do. Your relationship with food has an outside influence on your youngsters. If you are secretly binging, or bouncing from diet to diet, bemoaning the effort and sacrifice of being “healthy”, your children will learn dysfunctional ways of eating (and thinking about eating). But. When you model joyful well-being and healthy relationship with food, they will learn that too. And if you recognize unhealthy patterns and work to change them, they will learn that it’s okay to put in effort toward healthy change. What is most important is not where you are now, but in what direction you are going. 

Making healthy normal will look uniquely different for each family. There are no hard and fast rules, and not every plan will work for every person and situation. However, some general principles apply. Such as; pursuing joy in eating, eating real food, avoiding toxic ingredients, eating together when possible, being intentional about well-being, and having plenty of grace for yourself and each other. Remember, perfection is not the goal. Progress is. Go out and love your kids and work toward a lifestyle of joyful eating.

Janelle M. Zimmerman Bio