Healthy eating habits involve more than food choices
Donna Nolan, a regional nutritionist with Eastern Health, wants parents to know that teaching a child to eat healthy means moving away from "getting their child to eat" and toward teaching them how understand when they are hungry or full.
"In this approach, the parent is responsible for deciding what to serve a child, when and where. This builds a security for a child in knowing that he or she will be fed at regular times. The child decides what to eat from what is served and how much."
This does not mean that children get to eat whatever they want whenever they choose. Snacks and meals should be available around every two hours and children shouldn't eat in between those times so they learn about how much to eat when they are hungry.
Meals and snacks don't need to involve a big fuss, but parents need to consider that they are teaching family rules and expectations with each meal, so they should choose the environment carefully.
Nolan advises, "What they need to be considering is 'Is this going to create a pleasant environment with minimal distractions?' So, they are focusing on the meal and the whole experience. You are trying to incorporate not only the food part but also the behaviours."
Part of this pleasant experience is not pressuring the child about how much they are eating. When a smaller child says he is full and is told to eat one more bite, or a heavier child says she is still hungry and is told she has had enough, they are not learning to regulate their own hunger and they can feel overfull or deprived.
"The whole purpose in this is to allow them to grow to their potential and some children are going to be tall and big and some are going to grow to be very petite people," Nolan says.
"If your goal is to get them to develop healthy eating habits then whether they eat everything on their plate is not your marker of success. It is did they come to the table? Did they have something from what was there? Did they stop when they said they were full? Were they allowed to have seconds if they were still hungry?"
Beverley Rose, a mom with two girls ageed 9 and 12, helps her daughters eat healthy by offering a large variety of foods every day, including fresh fruit and whole grains. They have a good breakfast, home-packed lunches, and a healthy supper, and, for her family, good eating habits include eating in the kitchen rather than elsewhere in the house.
"We discourage eating in front of the TV, in the family room off the kitchen. The rec room in the basement has a dishwasher, fridge and sink for entertaining, so, we ask that they eat there only when entertaining friends. My girls may keep some treats from Valentine's, Easter, etc., in their bedrooms (hiding chocolate from Mom) and they will eat their special treats there, but we strongly discourage this, too, and ask that they eat in the kitchen."
Eating together and offering interesting and nutritious choices has worked for Rose, since her daughters are now willing to eat a sophisticated menu.
"They have been exposed to an extremely wide variety of food, much of which can be considered to be fine cuisine, thanks to their dad who has taken many courses and given all of us a mature palate for exceptional food.
One of the most important things families can do to encourage healthy eating is to eat together.
"When families eat together, there is opportunity for conversation, role modelling of eating behaviours." Nolan says, "Usually families who eat together eat more nutritiously, the children have a greater sense of belonging, and are less likely to be use drugs, or smoke."
Beverley Rose's family follows this advice and she finds it does bring them closer together.
"We eat dinner together at the kitchen table almost every night, and maybe in the dining room if need be. It's a great time to find out what happened in everyone's day, talk about upcoming events and homework, and chat about what's generally important to us. "
"The girls benefit because they know that we are interested in their day and in their performance at school. They also know that they can discuss the difficult things and the things that are coming up and are really exciting for them...our sharing time."
Teaching healthy eating habits to busy and reluctant children can feel like a challenge, but parents need to remember that it a process is just like anything you are trying to teaching your child. As Nolan says, "It's no different than a child learning how to walk, to talk (or) how to dress themselves, how to ride a bicycle. Few of us learn it overnight."
Beverley Rose has the following advice for other parents:
1. Do not cook different things for each person - everyone eats the same prepared meal.
2. Cook a wide variety of foods for evening meals to ensure that everyone gets the nutrition the need.
3. Don't snack a lot, but recognize that you can't ban them entirely.
4. Set ground rules for when and where everyone eats regularly.
1. Remember that, to children, all foods are new foods and they may need to try something a number of times before they decide that they like it. Offer a new food with plenty of familiar foods so kids can try a small amount but still have other choices to fill up on.
2. Don't use pressure to get children to eat or stop eating. Plan what you will provide, and don't worry about the amount they eat. If children know they can eat until they are full, they will learn to regulate themselves.
3. Provide meals and snacks at approximately the same times each day so children know they can depend on their routine.
4. While the ultimate goal is to have children eat the right number of servings from the Canada Food Guide, parents shouldn't stress out about it. Serving sizes are actually quite small, and parents can usually reach the serving numbers by serving items from each food group throughout the day.
Check out the following food resources:
More information on this type of healthy eating approach: http://www.ellynsatter.com/
Canada's Food Guide: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/order-commander/index-eng.php
Mealtime Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler: The Ultimate No-Worry Approach for Each Age and Stage by Ann Douglas