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How to Really Raise a Healthy Eater

This post was updated in May 2019.

Since when did feeding kids get so hard?

Time and time again I hear from parents who are overwhelmed, discouraged, and tempted to throw in the towel.

They sit in disbelief.

Baffled by how challenging it is to feed and raise a healthy eater.

In this article, you’ll learn what it takes to get kids to eat right, including a positive attitude, offering healthy food, using positive food parenting skills, and cultivating a robust sense of self. 

As a pediatric nutritionist, I know the attention you give to food selection and feeding your child will lay the foundation of your child’s future of health and wellness.

How to really raise a healthy eater

Why It’s Hard to Get Kids to Eat Healthy

I could go on and on about the variety of reasons it’s hard to feed kids today. Here’s a few of them:

Both kids and parents have busy schedules leading to a lack of time for shopping, preparing and eating food

Picky eaters and their picky palates make feeding them time-consuming and challenging 

Parents may lack cooking skills or the desire to cook

Advertising and marketing efforts around food tend to promote unhealthy, convenient foods which are palatable and attractive to kids

Dual working parents add pressure to mealtime schedules

I bet you could rattle off more!

The truth is, parenting and feeding kids is no walk in the park. 

We all want to raise a healthy eater.

That’s the good news.

The kick in the pants is this: There are certain principles and actions you must follow to make it more likely you’ll raise a healthy eater.

Having a blueprint is a good thing, so let’s dive in to what it takes to parent and feed a healthy eater. 

raise a healthy eater with a variety of colorful vegetables

7 Keys to Raising a Healthy Eater:

1. Have a Good Attitude: It’s Your Job!

If you approach your office job with dread, it will be dreadful. The same goes with all the elements of feeding your child.

Sure, shopping, cooking and cleaning aren’t glamorous or rewarding, but they are part of the job skill set. 

If you can shift your mindset it can make your daily routine more fulfilling.

Remember, your child’s eating habits and food preferences come from the home front, in large part.  

I hope you see yourself as a teacher, guide and exposer:

Teaching your child about food, nutrition and healthy habits.

Guiding your child to adopt healthy eating habits, manners and self-love.

Exposing your child to new cuisine, cooking skills and more.

You’ve got quite an important job!

So, take it to heart.

2. Offer Healthy Food as the Norm

I spoke with a mom the other day who was frustrated that her daughter was eating a lot of carbs, most of which were coming from processed, packaged foods like cookies and crackers.

I asked her to stop buying all those items and make a conscious effort to downsize them in the family diet.

Low and behold, her daughter started to eat more fruits, veggies and dairy products. Why? Because the other stuff wasn’t in abundance in the pantry any longer.

If you want your child to eat right, you’ve got to make healthy food items available in your kitchen.

Wholesome, nutritious food has to be the default.

Period.

Want to raise a healthy eater? Wholesome, nutritious food has to be the default. #thenourishedchild #eatlikeachampion #pediatricnutrition Click To Tweet

Children require over 40 nutrients each day to grow and develop well.

Offer a wide variety of whole, natural foods including dairy products, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.

And get the food balance in a good place, making sure to keep a cap on sweets and treats.

3. Focus on Family Meals

I know you’re busy. And time is tight. But if there’s one thing that will really move the needle on raising a healthy eater who makes healthy choices, it’s family meals.

Sit down and eat together as often as you can. 

Research tells us that eating three to five family meals per week may improve grades, reduce risk-taking behaviors, and prevent weight problems and eating disorders.

Try using a family-style meal service.

Put a variety of prepared food into serving dishes, pass them around the table and let everyone choose which foods they will eat and how much. 

[If you want a tutorial on this approach, listen to this podcast episode.]

Be sure to include one or two food items that you know your child likes and is comfortable eating.  

Family-style meals encourage learning about appetite and they promote autonomy.

This is the fastest path to supporting your child in learning about his body, a balanced diet, and eating quantities of food that are right for him.

It works a lot better than telling your child what and how much to eat!

how to really raise a healthy eater

4. Flex Your Food Parenting Muscles

Your parental feeding style and how you and your partner parent around food are powerful predictors of how well your child will eat.

If you use negative feeding practices like pressure to take more bites or try new food, or implement food rewards to get your child to eat, you’ll be heading down a dangerous road. 

One that can result in poor food choices, overeating, under-eating, and even dysfunctional eating.

Instead, be diplomatic in your feeding approach.

In other words, use a love with limits strategy. Set up an eating schedule, a regular eating location, and kitchen and food rules to help your child manage his eating.

You will have a happy eater in the long run.

5. Introduce New Foods

One of the effective ways to help your child learn to like and eat a variety of foods is by consistently offering and exposing her to new items. 

Even if she rejects them.

This is called repeated exposure.

For many kids, it will take 8 to 15 to perhaps even 50 repeated exposures (without pressure to eat), before they will adopt a new food into their diet.

Yet, many parents give up after 3 or 4 exposures.

Don’t be that parent.

If you have a picky eater on your hands, there is a way to introduce new foods that will result in better outcomes.

[If your picky eater is underweight, read this.]

On the flip side, there’s a path to more picky eating, which unfortunately, many families find themselves on.

Part of raising healthy eaters is to expose your child to new food, new cuisines, and new flavors. But it’s not just about getting new food on the table.

The tone and manner with which you feed matters just as much.

[Read: Help! My Toddler Won’t Eat.]

What about Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables?

This is the questions most parents focus on. Yes, it’s important to help kids learn to like and eat vegetables.

But veggies are an acquired taste. Naturally, they are bitter and this fact repels many children.

Be patient. Continue to bring them to the table in many different forms.

For example, cream of broccoli soup, roasted broccoli, or blanched broccoli with dip. You get the idea.

Offering fruit can cover some of the nutrient gaps created by not eating vegetables, so make sure you serve it up often.

And, last, there’s always a multivitamin for the child who really eats very few vegetables.

6. Capture Teachable Moments about Nutrition

You probably want to know how to teach your child about nutrition. This is a good thing to think about.

Kids do best when they participate in active learning rather than passive learning.

Hands on experiences like cooking, baking and cleaning invite a natural conversation about food and nutrition.

Spontaneous questions about nutrition are also moments in time when kids are receptive to learning.

These teachable moments are important to capture because they indicate a curiosity. This means your child is ready to learn, on his timetable.

All that good information you have will sink in!

The opposite — lecturing about healthy eating, why your child should eat better, threats of his future poor health — simply don’t work.

You’ll be spinning your words and getting frustrated in the meantime. 

Let your child come to you. Create teachable moments in the kitchen. Embrace your child’s curiosity and explore topics in nutrition together.

7. Be a Healthy Role Model

You are the greatest influence on your child’s eating habits, particularly in the first decade of his life. 

To raise a healthy eater, you have to be a healthy eater yourself.

Not a big surprise to hear, I’m sure.

You also need to emulate good sleep habits, physical activity routines, and more often than not, positive ways to manage your stress levels.

Your child watches how you live, in order to learn how she should live. 

Powerful stuff.

Your child watches how you live, in order to learn how she should live. #thenourishedchild #positiverolemodel #raiseahealthyeater Click To Tweet

Negative comments about your child’s food selections, how much or how little she eats, and how she looks may hurt her self esteem and body image.

And if you’re making these comments about yourself, you need to stop.

Additionally, take the focus off of food, eating, and body size at mealtimes. Instead, enjoy conversations about the school day or future activities on the family schedule.

It’s so important to be a terrific role model for your child!

Walk the talk. It takes time. Remember, your child is absorbing (through osmosis it seems!) your habits, lifestyle and attitudes.  

You Can Be a Great Feeder

Following these principles will help you really raise a child who is a confident, healthy and happy eater.

I know it may seem like a lot, but it’s worth it. Chip away at each of these principles — they are effective. 

One of the reasons parents are overwhelmed with feeding their kids is that it isn’t simply about getting your child to eat healthy food. Or, getting healthy food on the table. Or teaching your child which foods he should eat. 

It’s so much more.

That’s where the overwhelm comes into play. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. 

Do You Need More Help?

If you want or need more help, I have several resources for you:

The Nourished Child Project: a self-education program designed for parents of children aged four to fourteen. The program helps you set up a food system, feeding strategy and healthy lifestyle habits.

The Smart Mom’s Guide to Starting Solids: Did you just have a baby? Getting ready to start solids? Do it the right way, with an eye on food and feeding. This quick read will help you get started on the healthy path.

Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods: Packed with the mindset, tools and strategies to help all picky eaters start the journey to add new foods to their repertoire. This workbook helps parents reflect, journal and strategize their approach to introducing new foods to the picky eater.

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