How to Create Health Motivation in Your Child

create love for health

I am often asked to help children make the healthy choice, or to help a child be healthy, or just want to be healthy. In essence, parents ask me all the time to help them create health motivation in their child.

“I wish she would just want to be healthy.”

“Can you help my child {actually} be healthy?”

“Can you help him want to eat healthy food?”

Being healthy isn’t only about the quality of food your child eats. Health motivation is a work in progress. It’s also a state of mind. When it comes to children, cultivating a love and respect for food and one’s own body is a big key to ultimately wanting to be and actually being healthy. In essence, health motivation is internal.

For example, if a child learns to love all food, I believe he will be better able to balance it appropriately. If a child learns to love her body, she’ll be less likely to abuse with overeating or unhealthy choices in the future. And if a child learns to love cooking, she will be inclined to experiment in the kitchen and maybe even make healthy food.

While I can’t instill health motivation in a child any more than another healthcare professional, I do know there are some things you can do along the road of parenting that will increase your child’s appreciation for being, eating, and making healthy choices.

5 Key Elements to Health Motivation:

A Love for One’s Own Body: Little kids love their bodies—they don’t lament about the size of their hips, legs, or rear end. They run freely, jump with zest and walk proudly around the pool in their swimwear (or around the house in their birthday suit). But somewhere in childhood, many kids lose this love of their body and replace it with criticism, embarrassment, and sometimes loathing.

Encouraging your child’s body love is crucial—and tricky. One way to do this is to make sure you love your own body: you take care of it, you don’t insult yourself, or make negative comments about your weight in front of your children. Making body love a topic of conversation is helpful too, as it places a focus on appreciating all the things a body can do. Get ready for difficult but age-appropriate questions like “Do you think I’m fat?” A thoughtful response,  as demonstrated in this article, can help your child.

A Love of Food: So many adults struggle in their relationship with food—they love it and hate it. They allow themselves to indulge in the foods they love, but then deny those foods, sometimes indefinitely. We make food complicated for kids when we classify it as “good” or “bad.” Kids should grow up loving food, eating it with a sense of adventure, excitement, and learning how to balance all food.

Striking a healthy food balance is the key to being able to love all food. Honor your child’s food preferences but don’t get stuck there. Nudge him to explore food and encourage new foods, tastes, and food combinations. After all, you can’t live without food, so I say love it!

A Love of Eating: Eating is a process—a slow, savory process. It involves the taste of food, the table environment, camaraderie among diners, and more. You want to teach your child to love the eating experience, and this starts with coming to the dinner table. Do your best to create a happy place at mealtime. You don’t want to teach your child that coming to the dinner table is like coming to a war zone, where he has to be on the defensive, deflecting pressure to eat, punishment, or disappointment. Make sure that eating together means more than eating the food that is served. Let your child learn that eating is social, enjoyable, and a positive experience. 

If you’re looking for inspiration or a mealtime overhaul, check out my Happy Family Meals Challenge.

A Love of Cooking: You can’t create a love for cooking unless you get your child in the kitchen and give her some freedom. Get her there often so she’s comfortable. Give her the freedom to follow recipes, make mistakes, and experiment. You don’t want your child to be intimidated in the kitchen or afraid to take a chance on a new recipe.

Julia Child captured the essence and attitude to have with cooking when she said, “Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless and above all have fun.” You don’t want to pass on your own cooking deficiencies or fears. Try and learn together!

A Love for Physical Activity: You really don’t have to create or cultivate this one, but you do have to preserve it. Kids naturally love to move and be active—some more than others—but all kids enjoy movement. However, the older kids get, fewer opportunities to be active exist. If you are active, and you take the lead in family activities, your child will be more likely to be active too–and this can continue into adulthood.

This health motivation may create a state of mind that encourages a lifelong internal motivation to be healthy. You or I can’t make your child want to be healthy, or eat healthy, but you can certainly promote other feelings, such as those above that will lead to “healthy” being a love of your child’s life, and the natural default.

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  1. Hello, and thank you for this post. I love, and subscribe to, all of your ideas above – but what do you do when they don’t seem to be enough?

    I have 2 daughters — 5 and 8 — and my five year old has been obsessed with food and eating for as long as I can recall. We’ve tried all of the standard strategies — offering a wide variety of foods, offering mostly “healthy” foods but including treats, we set the example as parents, we eat breakfast and dinner together as a family daily, we garden and cook, etc.

    But she is so fixated on food – always wants to know what we are eating at our next meal (and often several beyond that), when she can have snack, how many of X she is allowed to have — she will eat herself sick if we let her, and any sort of social event where food is abundant is incredibly stressful.

    We’ve tried talking to her about listening to our bodies, taking breaks, etc — it all makes her angry and frustrated. And as all of our friends have the opposite problem (can’t get their kids to eat!!) everyone thinks we are crazy and we’re at our wits end!

    Food seems like a means of control for her – and from that perspective we’re looking to help her with her thought process and self-management, and we’re less interested in strategies about controlling her food.

    Do you have any suggestions for us?? We will try anything (within reason!)

    1. Hi Rachel,
      I believe that some children are truly in love with food–the look, the taste, the process of eating, etc. A true passion, if you will. I also know that young children will sense tension, and if there is any around food, a sensitive child will pick up on it. Here’s a few suggestions to try: embrace her interest in food and get her more involved in food–more cooking, prepping, planning. Seek out her input for weekly menus, snacks, meals–and take the opportunity to teach about the qualities of food without conveying any negative bias. Verbalize your boundaries, such as “we can have one sweet today. which one would you like?” or “we’ve had our sweets for today; would you like some fruit and yogurt for snack?” Map out your meals in an easy to read/accessible place so she can be reassured without constantly asking you. Refer to the clock for timing of snacks and meals–again, reassuring her when she will eat next.
      i think you may have a budding foodie on your hands–which isn’t a problem!–it’s just that she is more interested than most kids in food. Your biggest challenge will be to embrace this interest and use it constructively, rather than see it as a weakness or burden. As you say, some of this may be control seeking behavior–give her more control as outlined above and see how she does. I bet she’ll be great!