Every month exciting new research comes out that helps us figure out what steps work best in raising healthy eaters. This past month the American Heart Association published a scientific statement highlighting what we know in how parents can best set the stage for young kids to be healthy eaters. Thankfully much of what is recommended based on the latest research is very consistent with what I have advised on this site and in my books, practiced with my own kids, and share with families every day in my pediatrics practice (phew!). That doesn't mean it's easy, though. As parents we have a natural instinct to want to ENSURE that our kids eat healthy. If they don't, we feel like it is our own fault. But when we FORCE them to eat what we think they should it, it backfires on us. We must be more covert in our strategies. What that means is the following:
Our overarching goal as parents should be to help kids learn to eat when they're hungry and stop when their full. To do that, we need to key in to their cues of hunger and fullness, starting in infancy. We need to offer small portions of food and help kids learn to eat slowly. We need to provide structure (such as scheduled meal and snack times) but not force kids to eat certain amounts or types of foods.
Our secondary goal should be to help our kids actually consume the healthy stuff. But forcing them to do that doesn't work in the long term. Instead, we can reason with them (as they get older they respond a little better to this (until they are teens, and then, no promises)), compliment healthy choices, in a low-key way repeatedly offer healthy (but perhaps, rejected) foods, create a healthy food environment by having ready access to wholesome foods like fruits and vegetables and keeping the processed stuff and sodas out of the house as much as possible, and eating family meals together as often as possible.
Different strategies work best at different ages. Know your child's developmental stage and tendencies. For example, toddlers are naturally picky and a little neophobic (scared to try new foods). Roll with it by not catering to the pickiness and continuing to offer new or rejected foods in a low-key way, paired with a food they love. Preschoolers are increasingly interested in what their friends are doing. Take advantage by offering your child a new or rejected food that you know a child's friend who happens to be visiting really loves. Then don't say anything and just watch. More ideas by age and stage are included in the picture above.
What has worked great for your family? Please share in the comments!