Eating well does not come as naturally as we might assume. While children are naturally good at self-regulation we cannot expect that they will make the healthy choice when presented with different food choices. In the same way that we teach children to do the activities we expect of them, we need to teach them how to eat well. In the same way we encourage the improvement of their natural abilities, we need to encourage them in the area of good nutrition.
Teaching need not mean lecturing on the benefits of healthy eating but should rather be the creating of opportunities for children to learn through experiencing healthy eating for themselves on a very regular basis. This includes parental example, continuous exposure to healthy foods and the exploration of new healthy foods.
This the most important aspect of healthy eating in young children. Acceptance of new healthy foods is far more likely with the modeling of good eating behaviour by parents and any other caregivers. Children must be able to see their parents eating the foods they are expected to eat. For maximum effectiveness, families should eat as many meals as possible together. Family foods can be adjusted for age appropriate texture but preparing different foods for children and adults should be limited. This might seem difficult to achieve but starting with one meal a day will help. If need be, small children can sit and colour in at the table or talk about their day while their parents eat.
Children also pick up food aversions from parents. It is important to remember that both positive and negative food related parental behaviours set an example for children. The key would be to model more positive (healthy) food behaviours than negative behaviours. Limiting the substitution of meals with treat foods or the habitual eating of fast convenience foods is essential in setting a healthy example.
Children will not have the opportunity to accept new foods unless they are exposed to them. This exposure has to be a regular for it to be successful in achieving an increased intake of healthy foods. Food diversity is very important for the achieving of adequate nutrients from the diet. Developing a diverse diet requires diverse exposure to new foods and continued exposure of previously accepted healthy foods.
When first introducing a new food, your child may have to try it 8 – 12 times before they accept it. Remember that acceptance does not mean they have to like the food. Tolerance is sufficient. When introducing a new food, it is advisable to pair it with a familiar food that has been previously accepted. The trick is not to mix new foods with familiar foods in effort to hide them. Simply present the new food as part of the meal and encourage your child to have a taste if there is immediate resistance.
The texture and cooking method can differ but the food must be recognizable for what it is in order for it to be accepted for what it is. The more familiar a food becomes, the less terrifying it becomes.
With the focus on tasting new foods rather than eating new foods, a door opens to the more fun method of teaching children to eat well through food exploration.
Involving children in food preparation is the perfect way to harness their interest while inadvertently expanding the duration of time for example setting and exposure to healthy foods. This time of food preparation allows for the exploration of new foods without the pressure of eating new foods.
In the same way children learn through play, subconscious learning takes place during this time of family food preparation. Cooking vegetables every night, for example, is a habit that can be passed on to kids simply by giving them the opportunity to witness this as a daily act. An added bonus is that learning food preparation skills will never go to waste.
Allowing children to help in the kitchen is likely to encourage them to try the foods they have assisted in preparing. Try new recipes with the foods they like. This will help you to expand on your list of family favourites for easy weekly menu planning.
Example, exposure and exploration are key investments in the development of good nutrition behaviour for the same reasons they are relied on for general childhood development.