Get an Early Start on Promoting a Healthy Relationship with Food
How many adults do you know who are constantly conflicted about what they eat… wanting to eat things they know they shouldn’t, then feeling guilty, then spiraling into over-consumption or even binging when they feel they’ve “blown their diet.” Ideally you can help your child avoid ever having to be “on a diet” by establishing healthy habits from the outset. This doesn’t mean they won’t have to “watch what they eat” at some point and perhaps even “cut back,” but these are adjustments we all have to make and can be done in a way that avoids the restrictive and punishing feel of a diet.

One good way to do this is to create a home environment full of good tasting, healthy, food and without the soft drinks, salty snacks, cookies, and candy that don’t contribute to a healthy diet. By doing this, you don’t have to “police” what your child eats so closely, because most of what is available is good for them. Of course this means that you must be willing to forgo many of the unhealthier foods yourself, which both sets a great example and helps you stick to healthier eating habits.

Help Your Child Enjoy Healthy Food Choices
Help your child get started on the right foot by learning to enjoy all kinds of food and particularly the healthier options. You can do this by exposing your child to a wide variety of food, modeling good dietary habits and an interest in trying new things, and creating an environment both at home and away from home that makes it easier for your child to make the healthy food choice.

If you turn up your nose at okra, chances are your child will pick up on this and develop a similar opinion. Conversely, if you are always game and excited about trying something new, this will likely be “infectious” for your child. Be especially careful not to box in your child by commenting, when they are offered something new, “Oh, I don’t think she’s going to like that.” Research suggests that children may need to try a new food as many as 10 times before they begin to like it. Don’t give up but don’t be too pushy either. Some parents find it works to ask their child to take a “no thank you serving” which is a small bite of something they don’t choose to eat, but it still gives them an opportunity to taste it.

Be Aware of the Foods that Pile on Extra Calories
These days it’s way too easy to consume lots of calories and increasingly difficult to burn them off, even among children. An easy place to start avoiding this problem is with milk. As your child approaches age 2, start gradually offering lower fat milk, such as 2%, and work your way down slowly to skim. Do this as a family if you are not already drinking skim milk. You’ll be surprised how people adjust to lower fat milk if you transition slowly. Once you start drinking skim milk on a regular basis, you may even find that whole milk tastes unpleasantly rich and fatty.

Soda is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to piling on the extra calories for both adults and children. Given that soft drinks are made entirely of sugar, water, and flavorings, they provide only “empty calories.” Increasingly, research is showing that drinking more than one soda, or other sugar sweetened beverages, is associated with extra weight gain in children. Think of these drinks as “liquid calories” that slide down too fast and too easy!

Fruit juice may not be empty calories (real fruit juice as vitamins and minerals as well as calories), but it can still add up quickly. Don’t use juice as a thirst quencher for your child – use nice cold water instead. Many forms of juice have as many or more calories than sodas, so go easy on the amount. It’s also a lot more expensive than water. Spend a little extra money on 100% juice vs. fruit drinks that are mostly sugar, but then give your child just 6-8 oz for the whole day. They don’t call those small cups juice glasses for nothing!

Help Your Child Learn and Experience More about the Source of their Food and How to Prepare it
Children are fascinated by how food grows and how it can be prepared, but they often don’t get much opportunity to see either of these things these days. Research and experience suggest that kids who work with others to help grow fruits and vegetables and cook them, are more likely to try eating and develop a lifelong taste for them. Don’t forget to let kids try vegetables raw. Fresh crunchy vegetables are often more appealing to young children than soggy cooked ones (just make sure to wait until they after past the high risk choking age). There are the usual carrots, broccoli, zucchini, that are good raw, but even things like turnips and sweet potatoes have a great fresh raw taste and crunch. Take your kids to a Farmer’s Market so they can be a part of the festive atmosphere, meet the people who grow their food, and participate in the fun and taste testing that often happens at the markets. They’ll develop a new appreciation for fruits and vegetables.

What do you do to help your child have a healthy relationship with food?

By Alice Ammerman, DrPH RD Professor, Department of Nutrition, UNC-CH Gillings School of Global Public Health and School of Medicine, and Director, Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention