Ways to engage your family to eat nutriously
April 26, 2013
FORT LEE, Va. -- Good nutrition is a family affair, whether one member has a few pounds to lose or if everyone just wants to have good health and the energy to do the activities they love. There are a number of things you can do to engage your family in food-related matters so that meals and snacks can be both nutritious and delicious.
A great place to start is with ChooseMyPlate.gov. Regardless of age, everyone should think about how important it is to regularly select foods from all five of the food groups. A fun activity could be for the family to sit down and plan a week's menu for all of the meals that are going to be eaten at home. Everyone could have a favorite choice within the week, and planning a menu creates a perfect opportunity to ask "What vegetable would go best with this meal: carrots or broccoli?" or "Should we drink a glass of milk or have some yogurt for dessert as our dairy serving?"
It's important to let your children participate in decision-making during the menu planning process to encourage their "buy-in" when it comes time to sit down to eat dinner, but within healthy parameters that parents establish. An additional benefit of menu planning is that it can help to streamline your grocery shopping because -- going hand in hand with planning the menu -- you'll prepare a shopping list from the recipes needed to create those dishes. Staying on track with a shopping list can help you avoid impulse purchases that might not be as healthful and add extra costs to your trip to the Commissary.
Parents modeling healthy food behaviors are key to ensuring children develop good nutrition habits. Choosing a fruit, vegetable or whole grain serving as part of your snack shows your child this is something you enjoy and they are likely to enjoy as well. One way to guarantee that fruits and vegetables are the preferred snack choice is to have plenty of brightly colored produce washed, cut and ready to eat, and placed at the right height in the refrigerator or on the counter to be within easy reach. Another way to ensure that snack time is a time for good nutrition is to let your child pick between healthy choices, such as apple wedges with peanut butter or a cheese stick and whole grain crackers.
Getting your children involved with meal preparation as much as is age-appropriate will usually create interest in eating the finished product. Whether it's helping to measure ingredients, tearing or cutting produce to mix for a salad, or using cutters to shape a fun-to-eat sandwich (you'll find cutters specific for that purpose on the bread aisle), your children will build self-confidence by doing things that they see are important for the family meal and you'll get to spend quality time with them. You can help the experience to be a positive one for even the youngest family members by having them stir or measure with everything placed on top of a jelly roll pan to catch any spills. And, keeping recipes simple so they can be prepared from start to finish by the younger members of the family will make it more likely that they will want to do it again.
One more thing that is important to remember is that it can take multiple times serving a new food before it is accepted, even as many as 8-10 attempts or more. Repeated serving of a food leads to familiarity, which is often what drives the choices of young children, but this can also help a parent learn to like a food that is new to them as well. Parents need to understand that any initial rejection of a food shown by their child is normal behavior, and that children can learn to accept and enjoy new foods by having enough opportunities to experience them.
Context is also important as children are exposed to new foods. Even small children sense their parent's perspective on a food based on the nature of their interaction. Be sure to create an encouraging feeding environment so that the child has the intended positive association with a new food experience.
Finally, rewarding your child for eating a particular food or forcing them to eat beyond their hunger are behaviors that are not healthful. Don't create negative associations with certain foods by telling your child that they can have or do something that is highly desirable, if "they'll just eat their (insert food choice) first."
Parents should not be overly restrictive of their children's access to highly palatable foods (likely to be higher in fat and/or sugar) either, because this can also lead to a "forbidden" food becoming especially attractive to your child. Children have a surprising ability to self-regulate their intake to ensure healthy growth and development without parental influence, if they are provided a diverse and healthful diet. Research has shown an inverse relationship between a child's ability to regulate their energy intake and the amount of parental control imposed during a meal.
A parent's disregard for their child's hunger and satiety cues has the potential to result in excess calorie intake and subsequent overweight if the practice persists over an extended period, and also teaches the child to respond to external rather than internal eating cues.
The important things for the family to remember when it comes to healthy eating, are that there have to be adequate opportunities to eat healthful choices of a variety of foods. Regular mealtimes that are positive experiences shared by all family members can build healthy eating behaviors that may last a lifetime.