6 must-know steps to raising healthy eaters
Registered dietician Kim Milano shares 6 easy steps to help parents instil healthy eating habits in their children.
Just like learning to walk or tying shoes, children need help to learn to eat well. By following these 6 steps, you can help your child adopt good eating habits.
As you begin implementing these steps, remember that every child is different and that you know your child best. It may take 10 to 15 times of offering or introducing a new food to your child before he or she might try it. Stay patient and positive, as this process will help your child become a healthy eater.
Step 1: Manage mealtime
Decide on a time range that each meal will be served daily(E.g. Breakfast 6:30-7:30 AM, Morning Snack 10:00-10:30AM, Lunch 12:00-1:00 PM, Afternoon Snack 3:00-3:30 PM, Dinner 6:00-7:00 PM).
There should be 2 to 4 hours in between each meal or snack, during which only water will be given.
Choose mealtimes based on your family’s routines.
Follow the schedule for 2 weeks and reassess the programme and status accordingly. If the feeding schedule is not working, make adjustments with the times set, based on your family’s needs.
Step 2: Learn to understand your child’s hunger signals
As you set meal times, pay attention to your child’s signs of being full or hungry.
How do I know when my child is hungry?
How do I know when my child is full?
If you can’t answer these questions, pay attention to how your child behaves around meals for a week. Do remember that all children are different, so it may take a shorter or longer time to understand your child’s hunger signals.
Feed your child when she shows signs of hunger and end meals when she shows signs of being full. Don’t try to force meals. Instead, you may need to adjust meal times if your child is consistently hungry before the time you set to eat. (See Step 1 for tips on setting mealtimes)
Step 3: Choose healthy foods
Make the right foods available by taking these into consideration:
Make a list of foods your family eats often.
Circle foods that have at least one of these characteristics: (Serve 2 or more of the circled foods at each meal and snack).
1) Any fruit or vegetable
2) Fortified cereal or grain
3) Nuts or seeds
4) Fresh meat, poultry, fish, or pulses (lentils, peas, beans)
5) Milk-based products
6) Not highly processed (contains less than 5 ingredients)
Modify the texture of these foods to match your child’s feeding abilities:
Soft textures (mashed or pureed food)
Soft finger foods (bananas and cooked vegetables)
Crunchy foods (apple slices or cooked food)
Check the following options based on your family’s lifestyle:
- Mealtime is working based on my family’s schedule
- We have added in healthy or new food options into mealtime
If not, reassess and repeat steps 1 through 3
Step 4: Create the “Family Table”
Start as soon as your child begins eating solid foods.
Family members should all sit together as often as possible to eat meals and snacks. Remember, watching others eat is an important part of learning to eat.
Use a high chair if possible and pull it up to the table. Have any other parent or sibling sit across from your child so they can see each other eating.
Eat foods yourself while you feed your child (Give him a bite, take a bite yourself).
Do not make comments about what foods or how much food your child eats.
Do not pressure your child to take a bite.
Do make comments about what the foods looks and tastes like or how much you like it.
Allow your child to feed himself as much as possible and to touch and play with food.
Do not wipe his face during the meal – let him make a mess.
Control the chaos by:
Setting rules for behavior at the table (e.g. no throwing food, no taking food from other’s plates without asking)
If children break behavior rules, remove them from the table and put them in time out for several minutes and then return them to the table.
End family meals after 20 to 30 minutes unless children are still actively eating.
If the child is done, he or she may leave the table.
Step 5: Learn what kind of feeding style you have
Am I anxious or worried that my child is not eating enough or eating the wrong foods?
Am I concerned that my child is eating too much or too often?
Am I content with how and what my child eats?
If you answered “yes” to the first two questions, then it is important to understand what feeding practices you use in response to your concerns about eating.
Put a check across the letter for each feeding practice you use with your child.
(C) I often nag my child to eat more of a specific food.
(C) I frequently force my child take at least a bite of food.
(R) I sit and eat with my child.
(I) I only give my child foods I know he or she likes.
(I) Whenever my child asks for something to eat, I give it to her or him.
(P) I sometimes forget to give my child meals.
(C) I give my child dessert if he or she eats a good meal.
(P) I let my child choose his or her own meals.
(R) I don’t let my child eat in between set meals and snack time.
(I) I prepare special foods for my child when he or she doesn’t like what is on the menu.
(R) I serve healthy foods and let my child choose what he or she wants to eat.
(C) I take away my child’s plate if he or she is eating too much.
(P) My child can eat whenever he or she wants.
(R) I don’t force my child to eat when he or she is not hungry.
(I) When my child starts crying at the table, I give him or her something else to eat.
(P) I don’t really know or care what my child eats.
Count the number of check marks of each letter you have made. The largest number of feeding practices you marked with the same letter gives you an idea which feeding style you tend to use:
(P) = Passive feeding style
(C) = Controlling feeding style
(I) = Indulgent feeding style
(R) = Responsive feeding style
Step 6: Consistently offer new foods
At least once a day, offer your child a food she doesn’t eat or hasn’t tried before
Put a small amount of the new food on her plate
Make sure there are one or two foods you know she eats on the plate as well
Do not pressure her to take a bite or to try the new food
Talk positively about the new food and other foods on the plate.
Is your child a healthy eater?
Parents should also work with all caregivers (e.g. babysitters and grandparents) who are involved in mealtimes.
Be sure to observe their interactions and attitude during meals, and work collaboratively to ensure that everyone is following the same steps and guidelines.
About the author
Kim Milano is a nutritional consultant from Fort Jackson, South Carolina. She obtained her Master of Science degree from the University of Kansas, where she also completed her internship.
Kim has been specialising in pediatric nutrition over the past 28 years, with an emphasis on feeding difficulties in infant and toddlers. She coordinated the inpatient and outpatient Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN) programmes at Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington DC from 2002 to 2006, where she helped children transition from tube feeding and intravenous feeding to normal diets. From 2007-2009, she continued to work with children with feeding disorders and obesity at Evans Army Community Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado.