7 New Rules for Raising Healthy Eaters

Suzanne Murray

toddler eating fruit
Flickr photo by Bruce Tuten
Getting your toddler to eat healthfully can be a lot like wrestling an anaconda in a bathtub of Jell-O. Actually, wrestling the anaconda might be a lot easier -- and a lot less stressful.

Kids want to play with their food, they refuse to eat outright, or they binge on a different food every day. What's a mom to do to make sure her child is getting the nutrition he needs?

"Relax," says Michelle May, MD, a family physician and author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. "From the moment they're born, children have the ability to know when they're hungry. While it's your responsibility to decide what you will offer, it's up to them whether they will eat it. Having a positive, low-key attitude about eating makes meal-time more pleasant and therefore more successful."

Here, Dr. May's tips for raising a healthy eater.

  1. Don't Bribe or Threaten Your Child When It Comes to Food
    Once they're old enough to sit at the table, resist the temptation to bribe or threaten them to eat more than they're hungry for. Instead, allow them to use their hunger cues to determine how much they need, while providing a balance of nutritious, delicious foods. When we teach them about moderation and set a great example by living an active, healthy lifestyle, they'll be less likely to develop weight problems later in life. Think of your slim friend who eats whatever she wants -- but will turn down ice cream if she's had enough to eat!

  2. Don't Make Your Child Lick His Plate Clean
    It’s a big mistake to force children to clean their plate in our current abundant food environment. When you make a child clean the plate that you filled, you're teaching them to ignore their innate ability to know how much their bodies need. Additionally, when you bribe them with dessert, kids figure out that the dinner must be the “yucky stuff” and sweets are the reward for eating more than they were hungry for. They also learn to hold out until the reward is offered. The result may be a lifetime membership in the Clean Plate Club.

  3. Do Keep Offering Him Food He "Hates"
    Some children are naturally picky and most children will dislike certain foods based on their textures or strong flavors. It may take up to 10 exposures of a new food before a child will accept it. A child who resists being forced to eat steamed broccoli and cauliflower will have fun dipping fresh "trees and clouds" into a little ranch dressing. When my kids were small, we played "Guess the Color." They closed their eyes and tried to guess the color of the food I put in their mouth. They were having too much fun to realize that the most colorful foods happened to be vegetables.

  4. Do Give Your Toddler Frequent Snacks
    Toddlers are naturally hungry every few hours and eat frequent small meals, so providing meals and snacks on a regular basis helps establish and support consistent patterns. If a toddler doesn’t verbalize that they're hungry even though it has been several hours since their last meal, watch for other signs like irritability and ask, “Are you hungry?” to help them make the connection.

  5. Do Let Your Toddler Play With His Food
    Most kids love to examine, smell, and touch their food. Since eating is a total sensory experience, they get the most from every morsel. This childlike approach is called "mindful eating" and is a wonderful way to appreciate the aroma, appearance, and flavors without distraction.

  6. Do Indulge Your Child in Less Nutritious Foods
    Avoid labeling some foods as “good” and others as “bad.” Instead, teach your children how to balance eating for nourishment with eating for enjoyment. Studies have shown that stringent food rules can lead to rebellious eating when your children are out of your control.

  7. Do Be a Good Role Model
    When your children see you enjoying healthful foods and physical activity, they're more likely to do the same. Kids will always be exposed to bad eating influences so it's best to help them develop an internalized mechanism for making decisions about what they'll eat. 

"In short, it's not our job as parents to know how much food a child should eat at any given time, or to make them eat something because it is 'good' for them," says Dr. May. "Instead, it's our responsibility to teach our children about healthy eating, to provide them with a variety of tasty, nutritious choices, to set a good example by our own eating habits, and most importantly, to make meals a pleasant time to bond as a family."

Are you relaxed about your toddler's eating habits?

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