Raising Healthy Eaters Is No Simple Task, but Introducing Good Habits From Infancy Can Help
From the moment a child is born, we start obsessing over what they'll eat and when. (Breast or bottle? Scheduled or on-demand feedings?) As they grow and their diet expands, it’s up to you to provide the food — but also to help your child establish healthy nutrition habits that will last a lifetime. “Children typically learn their eating habits from their parents. And the goal is to raise children with a positive relationship with food,” notes Michelle Dudash, RDN, creator of 4Real Food Reboot, a healthy-meal-planning program. Raising healthy eaters requires years of cultivating. To give your child or grandchild some nutrition savvy, follow these eating guidelines for every age.
Infants (6-12 Months)
Establish healthy habits. Though you’ll be feeding your baby breast milk or formula for about the first six months, after that, it’s time to start introducing solids. That being said, the habits babies learn about eating now will stick with them for life. “When you’re weaning and introducing solids, that will set up their relationship to eating,” says Marina Chaparro, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of Nutrichicos, a website dedicated to nutrition and wellness for children. “Kids are responsible for deciding how much they eat and if they want to eat it. As parents, you’re the ones deciding what food you’re going to present. Once you have that established, you create a healthier relationship for feeding.” Whether you're a parent or grandparent, it's in our nature to ensure our children and grandchildren are full and satisfied after a meal. While it may be tempting to try to get your baby to finish every bite, it’s important not to force-feed children from a young age, adds Chaparro. “Babies are very intuitive and know how much they need to eat, even at this early stage.”
Mix things up. A baby’s first solids usually start with cereal. Then, work your way up to fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy, meat, and seafood, plus thin layers of nut and seed butters. The more variety, the better. “There’s a window of opportunity now, because your baby is still learning about foods,” says Chaparro. “At this age, kids are very open, so introduce lots of fruits and veggies and flavors.”
Be bold. Avoid giving bland combos out of fear your baby won’t like anything else — and don’t avoid certain foods just because you happen to dislike them. “Even different textures are important at this age,” says Chaparro. She recommends an iron-rich diet (think: beans, chicken, eggs, meat, lentils, and fortified cereal), since it plays a major role in neurological and cognitive development. Foods to steer clear of at this age include honey, due to the potential risk of botulism; choking hazards, such as popcorn, nuts, hard candy and dried fruits; and cow’s milk, which should be introduced only after 12 months of age.
Toddlers & Preschoolers (1-4 Years)
Have patience. There’s a reason it’s called the Terrible Twos. “This is the time when kids are flourishing in independence,” says Chaparro. “They have learned the word 'no' and have more of a personality and a say.” Your child also isn’t growing at the same rate as when they were an infant, so expect their appetite to be on and off. “Kids might eat a lot one day and very little the next,” says Chaparro. Repetition is also a big trend. Your child might want to eat mac and cheese every day for a week and then suddenly hate it. “The most important tip is not giving up. Encourage variety. They might not eat what you’re offering that day, but next month, they might love it.”
Offer choices. Support their newfound independence, but foster healthy eating by giving healthy options — like deciding whether they want bananas or blueberries. Toddlers’ plates should be loaded with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy (whole milk for 1-year-olds, low-fat for ages 2 and up), meat, and seafood. Make sure they’re getting plenty of calcium and healthy fats for development. For example, olive oil, peanut butter, 2 percent milk, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, will help with brain development. Get creative: Turn scrambled eggs, fruit, and toast into a funny face or use a cookie cutter to make cute shapes with vegetables — whatever it takes to make the food more enticing.
Be consistent. Now is the time to establish regular meal times — and not the constant noshing that can undermine nutrition. “Put your child on a healthy schedule, which should be three meals and two or three snacks per day,” advises Dudash. And don’t worry about them cleaning their plates. “Allow your child to eat until he or she has had enough.”
Let them grow. Not much changes by way of diet once toddlers reach preschool age, except the choking hazard restrictions no longer apply. “It’s just the portion sizes and number of servings that increase,” Dudash says. Continue to offer variety with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as healthy fats and whole grains.
School Age (5-9 Years)
Be a good role model. Now that your child is a little older, it’s more important than ever to set a good example. Instead of lecturing kids about what not to eat, lead by example, making sure your own diet is filled with healthy choices and appropriate portions. And avoiding labeling, warns Dudash. “I don’t recommend getting into healthy or unhealthy, since this can have negative consequences, like unfavorable views toward healthy foods or a fear of unhealthy foods,” she says.
Get them involved. Now’s also a good time for your child or grandchild to be more hands-on. Let him help prepare dinner or his school lunches with mom or grandma. Go to the grocery store together. “Put food choices into their daily lives,” says Dudash. The more your child is exposed to how food gets to his plate, the better the eating habits he’ll develop. On top of that, it begins to teach them the useful skill of being able to prepare a snack or meal for themself.
Serve healthy snacks. Snacks serve an important purpose at this age, especially if you have a finicky eater. “Snacks are there to supplement nutrition requirements and complement meals,” says Chaparro. “It’s hard for children to meet 100 percent of their nutritional needs just at mealtime, so choosing healthy, nutrient-dense snacks helps fill in the gaps.” Focus on whole foods like fruits and veggies, whole grains, and proteins, such as cheese or Greek yogurt.
Tweens (10-12 Years)
Stay positive. It’s never a good idea to talk about weight, a restrictive diet, or food in a negative way, but that’s especially true once kids hit the middle school age. “We know that kids’ perception of their bodies starts at age 5,” Chaparro says. “If we are constantly talking with a 5-year-old about their weight, then in the pre-teen or teen years we often find issues.” Those can include body image distortion, dieting, compulsive exercising, body shaming, and other forms of eating disorders.
Dine in. You won’t always be looking over their shoulder, so put an emphasis on the family dinner every night, where you control the menu. Research shows that having just two family dinners a week has been known to reduce obesity. Chaparro recommends serving calcium-rich dishes often, especially if you have girls, since two-thirds of teen girls don’t get enough of it. Find it in dairy like milk and cheese, fish like sardine and salmon, and dark, leafy greens like kale and bok choy.
Teens (13-19 Years)
Find protein power. Protein is also especially important during the tween and teen stages because it builds, maintains, and supports tissue growth. If you have a young athlete, protein is vital for building muscle; but any growing teen — especially once they hit puberty — needs adequate protein, since it also plays a role in the production of enzymes and hormones. Aim for about .85 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (for a 135-pound kid, that’s about 52 grams daily).
Reinforce good habits. Offer the healthiest options possible for meals your kids eat at home, typically breakfast and dinner. “Sometimes we think that because the food is there they are going to eat it, but teens are not really adults — they don’t have that mental capacity,” Chaparro says. Since they’re into grab-and-go, cut up fruit beforehand, buy healthy granola, or make egg frittatas to freeze for later. At some point, your teen will have to make his own choices. “Providing is all you can do. Whether they choose to eat healthy is up to them,” says Chaparro.
Do's & Don'ts
DO: Create a schedule. Food shouldn’t be a 24/7 free-for-all. “There should be set times for meals and snacks — and no eating in front of the screen,” Dudash says.
DON'T: Treat food as a reward. Promising your little one a cookie if he eats his broccoli is never a good idea. “You’re basically telling your kid broccoli is the worst thing ever and that if you eat it, you can get this,” Chaparro says. “And never associate food with some type of behavior.”
DO: Let kids decide how much to eat. “Children are actually quite good at self-regulation, as long as they aren’t mindlessly munching away,” Dudash says. “Teach them that when they are hungry, they will get as much as they want to be satisfied.”
DON'T: Put your kid on a diet. “It’s better to put an emphasis on the deliciousness of healthy foods,” says Dudash. Rather than limiting calories, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends healthy levels of physical activity.
DO: Make food fun. Start your own cooking contests. “Try setting up a night where parents and kids are the judges of what that meal tasted like,” says Chaparro. “Make it into a game. It’s a fun way of introducing new foods and veggies instead of just telling them to try it because it’s good for you.”
DON'T: Make food a big deal. “Congratulating children for eating well and scolding kids for when they’re not eating what’s expected draws too much attention to the food,” Dudash says.
Healthy eating habits that start at infancy pave the way for a child's relationship with food for the rest of their life. Putting these practices to use at a young age can help your child or grandchild make the choices necessary to lead a healthy lifestyle as they grow older.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine The Science of Raising Happy Kids.