Teaching Young Children Healthy Eating

by Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D.

As parents, we want our children to be accustomed to healthy eating from the earliest possible age so good nutrition will be a lifelong habit.

Young children are ready to begin to learn about nutrition ("healthy food" vs. "treat food") and about food plans (why meals need to include each food group). These nutrition lessons will need to be repeated many times, in more detail, as your children get older and want to understand more about why.

We can begin teaching by explaining about the essential nutrients that every meal needs: protein (including dairy), grains (carbohydrates), fruits and vegetables, and a small amount of fat. Show your young child examples from your kitchen and from the supermarket. Parents should reinforce this by teaching and quizzing their youngster at the supermarket and restaurants. Children should also see their parents checking the nutrition information listed on food packaging. When they ask us what we're doing, we have additional opportunities for teaching.

Young children need to know that if they eat just bread, cereal, pasta, or even yogurt instead of a balanced meal, their bodies are missing the other important elements of healthy nutrition. For example, you can demonstrate balanced eating by explaining that a stool with only one or two legs will fall down -- it needs at least three supports to stand.

Regular times to eat

Three meals a day served at regular times, usually along with mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks, can help ensure that your child will be well-nourished. Some youngsters don't need a mid-morning snack, and some need a snack one day but not the next. Parents can experiment with whether to provide one or not.

If your child is frequently not hungry enough to eat at meals, check with his other caregivers to make sure that he's not eating too much at snack time or snacking too often. Eating meals and snacks at regular times helps children mentally and physically predict when they'll eat again and ensures that they'll be hungry for the nutritious, balanced meals and healthy snacks you're trying to provide.

If dinner is early and bedtime late, some children need a small snack before bedtime. Young children can get grumpy, over-reactive, and fatigued if they go too long between meals, and hunger can contribute to tantrums.

On the other hand, children who eat continuously through the day may get lots of calories but may miss out on a proper balance of nutrients because they're not hungry enough at mealtimes. They may be missing major food groups such as protein, because snacks are not usually as well-balanced as meals are. These "grazers" may also be using food as recreation, out of boredom, or as a way to get their parents' attention.

Young children usually need to have two to three hours between meals and snacks to develop sufficient appetite. Although it's hard to deny your child food when he keeps asking, he can get out of the grazing habit by being guided to do other things, such as crafts projects, helping you with chores, or just playing inside or outside.

Snacks

Many children want snacks frequently. It's very hard to say no, but snacks should be limited -- both in terms of when and what is served. Young children don't usually understand nutrition or have the self-control to choose healthy snacks or limit their servings. Most young children are inclined to demand any food that appeals to them, right now, instead of at a planned snack or meal. They keep demanding because it's hard for them to understand why we say no, and of course because sometimes we have given in. This is why it's so important to regularly explain about balanced nutrition and develop family rules about the kinds of snack foods you offer. (Remember the one- or two-legged stool mentioned earlier.)

Snacks should be served in smaller portions than meals and should consist primarily of healthy (nutrient-dense) foods -- preferably at least two food groups, so your child's hunger is satisfied until the next meal. Healthful snack foods include fresh or dried fruits and vegetables; bread, crackers, pretzels, rice cakes; and/or protein foods such as peanut butter or hummus, and nonfat or low-fat cheese, yogurt, and milk. Try fruit and string cheese or yogurt.

Stocking the house with healthy foods encourages good nutrition, and many parents find it wisest not to keep the tempting, unhealthy treats around at all. It's hard to keep your child away from less healthy foods like high-sugar, high-salt, high-fat foods if you keep them in the house. And not having to say no means fewer tantrums. If you give in to the demand for snacks, it can just make the problem worse.

Curbing cupboard raiding

Many children will help themselves to food as soon as they are old enough to open the refrigerator and cabinets. But most young children don't make good decisions about what to eat. You'll need to explain to your child why he can't just help himself without asking.

Supervise him closely so he knows you mean what you say. If the requested food fits into the next snack or meal, you can say yes and tell him why, and when he'll be able to have it, so he understands your rules. Otherwise, a child can get used to having too much say in deciding what and when to eat, and when you have to tell him no, he may feel entitled to sneak food.

If a child is very focused on taking his own food, see if you can figure out why he's doing it when he's not really hungry. You'll need to remind him that you're in charge, and why. Also make sure that his meals are balanced and served at regular times. Help him find ways to keep occupied. Keeping busy and active, and spending time with you, can fill your child’s emotional needs better than food can.

When your child has other caregivers at your home, they need to know your rules around food and your reasons. Even at your child's nursery school, kindergarten, or child care center, you may need to explain your food rules and reasons to the teachers.

The children need to hear you explain this to the caregivers, including suggestions for activities to redirect the children toward when they're nagging for treats. This will emphasize to your child that your commitment to nutritional guidance is serious.

Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., has been a child/parent psychologist for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Redwood City, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They? and Why Do I Have To? Her just-released book, written in consultation with noted pediatric dietitians, is I Like To Eat Treats. Her books are all-in-one, with a story for young children and a manual for parents. For more information about her work, visit her site.