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Eating: Cultivating healthy habits

I know parents who insist that their child will eat only one food, so they serve him that food every day. Not only are those parents failing to provide proper nutrition, they are failing to educate their children about an important topic. Perhaps even more important, those parents are shirking a crucial area of parental responsibility.

Explain the importance of a balanced diet so that your child understands why you’re serving some foods and not others, and why dessert cannot substitute for the main course. Even toddlers can understand that some foods are good for you and others (even though they are tasty) are not. (Never try to induce a child to finish a meal by promising dessert; the healthy foods on the table should be consumed because they’re healthy.)

Of course you can’t force a child to eat, but you can control what you buy and serve, as well as what is not eaten. A hungry child will eventually find something to eat if you offer him a variety of healthy foods.

Do not become a short order cook – that just encourages pickiness. Make a family meal and (barring allergies) expect everyone to eat it. If a child refuses to eat what you offer, allow him to take something healthy (a yogurt, carrots, a piece of fruit) from the kitchen so that he won’t go hungry, but don’t prepare a separate meal for him and don’t serve him dessert.

At the same time, respect your child’s wishes about food. I’ am not contradicting myself. What I mean is, when you’re packing your child’s lunch or snack, offer several (healthy) alternatives. Take him shopping and allow him to pick the vegetables or the main course for a meal.

As you offer explanations and kids start to understand them, they become curious about and more conscious of health and a healthy diet. This way, when they’re on their own, they don’t necessarily view the time as an opportunity to break free of the shackles of their parents’ diet. Instead, they will want to continue to treat their bodies well. (Cooking together provides a great opportunity to share some of these lessons.)

Why do I suggest the two-pronged approach – simultaneously taking charge and respecting your child’s wishes? First, I know from experience with four children that it works. Indeed, studies show that childhood obesity is correlated with both a permissive parenting style (giving children too much freedom) and an authoritarian parenting style (too little freedom, which causes kids to rebel). Take the middle ground and be authoritative about the classes of food your child should eat, but let your child choose among acceptable alternatives.

  • Speak to your children about healthy foods and about a change in strategy. Offer them a choice about which healthy foods they want for the week. Take them shopping to purchase the selections. If necessary, do a little research yourself so that you can explain why certain foods are healthier than others.
  • Stop catering to your child’s finicky behaviors. Serve the same meal to the entire family.
  • Try preparing unfamiliar foods in several different ways, and give your child a choice of healthy options. (The question shouldn’t be whether he’ll eat vegetables, but how he’d like to eat them.)
  • If a child won’t eat adequate portions of the foods you serve and is still hungry, offer a healthy substitute.
  • Do not use dessert as a bribe.

Source: 52 Weeks of Parenting Wisdom by Meg Akabas