This blog focuses on healthy eating for children from a behavioral and emotional perspective. In others words – “How to get your children to eat that healthy food.”
The first step to changing the way your child eats is to create a home where the healthy foods are convenient, prepared and abundant while the unhealthy foods are inconvenient, difficult to prepare, and scarce. Imagine a kitchen where there are several healthy choices prepared and ready to eat. But if you want cookies then you have to bake them. If your home has an abundance of unhealthy, convenient snacks around any efforts you’re making to get your children to eat healthy will be an uphill battle.
Have healthy snacks and foods ready-to-eat and easily available (think cut fruit, veggies and a healthy dip, sliced chicken breast and ketchup, or protein bars) and unhealthy snacks unavailable, expensive and difficult to prepare. You could offer to make him a healthy snack but require he make his own unhealthy one. Quite often we eat unhealthy snacks because they’re easy to open up and munch on. Think about having a refrigerator/pantry that has lots of healthy options on hand. (Lately, I’ve had 0% fat Greek yogurt with fresh blueberries and a little honey on hand for my daughter who’s home from college. It’s like creamy ice cream.) Initially, your child might not want these things but have them around and eliminate the unhealthy stuff and eventually she’ll try them.
The second step to getting your children to eat healthy foods is to set up firm boundaries and structured choices without any judgment about their decisions.
Let your children know that 95% of the time you’ll be preparing only healthy meals. If they want the more unhealthy choices they’ll need to prepare them themselves. Offer them some choices of the healthy foods you’re willing to prepare.
You can make a rule that before she has a snack of her choice she first must finish a healthy snack of your choice. You could give her a choice of a piece of fruit, veggies, a sandwich, nonfat yogurt or whatever. By the time she finishes the healthy snack she won’t be able to eat so much of the unhealthy one. Additionally, she’ll be developing a taste for healthier food.
Ask her to help choose from healthy choices. Give her multiple choices from healthy foods you choose.
Offer your children structured choices in order to avoid power struggles: “If you want _______ then you need to have ________ first. If you want to have_______ first/only that’s fine but that would be with your money.” Or, “You can choose any one of these five (cereals, protein bars, etc.). You can choose one or I’ll chose.”
Eating is often driven by emotion not hunger. The forces that drive overeating and binge eating are emotional not logical. First, worry about quality not quantity. You help your child develop a healthy relationship with food when you praise them when they eat food that’s good for them. The first step is to help them find healthy foods they like and encourage them to eat these without worrying about quantity. In the beginning stages of changing food habits they will still be overeating to feel good so just try to encourage them to eat healthy/healthier foods when they do.
Keep discussions, and setting of boundaries and limits, about food as neutral as possible. Example, “It’s fine if you want a sweet treat in the afternoon but from now on you need to eat a healthy snack before any unhealthy snack. If you don’t want a healthy snack that’s okay but if you don’t have a healthy snack first you can’t have the sweet/unhealthy snack.” Or, “I realize you want me to buy those cookies but I’ve decided to limit the number of unhealthy sweets we have in the house. If it’s really important that you have them your welcome to use your allowance to get them for yourself.”
Try not to convince, berate or lecture about food. Discussions that bring up shame or guilt about food can lead to binge eating and eating in secret.
Have a conversation about his/her feelings and concerns about their weight/appearance. This conversation should be primarily you asking your child questions that help them decide whether their current choices are getting him/her the results they want. Let them tell you their concerns, goals and struggles about eating. And then ask them to give you input about which healthy foods you buy. You choose what’s healthy and they chooses which of those foods they like.
Avoid the emotional backfire of shame and guilt that accompanies sneaking food. If you catch him/her sneaking food set a consequence in a neutral manner. Example, “Since you decided to go against my rule of having a healthy snack before a sweet one it just means you can’t have a desert tonight. Maybe you needed to have it now, and that’s fine, it just means you can’t have it later.” Or, “If you sneak food and don’t stick to the rules then the next time I go shopping I won’t get that item.”
Watch a video that uses the "Meet the Hand" method from my previous blog to guide children toward better food choices - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7tBQzYj4Po