As parents, we are concerned our preschoolers are eating to ensure proper growth and health, both physical and emotional. Yet, sometimes, maybe more often, we feel powerless over their eating habits. What can we do to help our kids eat for success now, as well as for later development?
The good news is that we do have influence over how our preschoolers eat. The first step is to keep our message about nutrition positive, because positive messages tend to be remembered better in preschool-aged children. A positive message focuses on the benefit of a food, or why the food is important. For example, quinoa has a lot of protein that helps keep our muscles strong for play; or, broccoli keeps our bodies healthy and protects us from getting sick. Messages that focus on why we don’t eat a food, or don’t eat it very often, can also be useful in that they help our preschoolers understand we have good reason for not allowing unhealthful food more often. For example, soda is junk food because it doesn’t help our brains get smart or our bodies grow strong. Clear, clean water does, and we can try sparkling water, which has fizzy bubbles just like soda.
Something else we can do to help our children choose healthy food is to pay attention to, and possibly alter, the atmosphere at meal times. Do we eat as an entire family at least once per day? Research indicates this is beneficial for kids. If we are eating with our children, what is the emotional tone of the meal? Kids form associations with food, and the associations may be positive or negative depending on the atmosphere of the meal. For example, we sit and eat dinner with our families every night, and we do our best to make a balanced meal; unfortunately, there is a lot of stress at the table. Due to the negative atmosphere, our preschoolers may remember the foods served to be associated with undesirable feelings, and hence refuse them. On the other hand, when love, laughter, and respect are at the table, then these feelings may transfer onto the food our children are eating. Also, we should never force our kids to eat a food. We simply offer nutritious selections, and model eating and enjoying it.
Perhaps birthday parties are a reason kids love junk food. After all, they are playing with friends, having fun, and eating pizza, hot dogs, ice cream, chips, and cake. These foods become parts of fond memories for our children who may want them more because of the positive feelings they impart. Our preschoolers do not realize this is happening, of course, but we do and it is up to us to create a relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere during mealtime at home.
Something else we can do to help our kids choose nutritious food is to not give up. 2- to-4-year-olds are notorious for refusing new foods, even if they were once adventurous eaters. However, wait for 2-4 weeks, and try again. Then wait and try again. Research shows it can take anywhere from 8 to 15 (!) exposures to a new or different food before it becomes accepted by a child. Fifteen sure sounds like a lot, but there is no time like the present, and we’ve got their entire childhoods ahead of us. As stated above, we need to make sure our kids actually see us eat and enjoy the food we want them to eat. This simple act helps increase our child’s acceptance of the food.
Research also indicates that children do not innately know how to choose healthy food. It is something they must learn, and us parents must grab this opportunity to allow our preschoolers to develop a taste for what will help them grow and keep them well. Thus, although nutrition lessons at school are an important component of our children choosing healthy foods and beverages, we must also incorporate into our daily meals the strategies outlined in this post. It is this parental involvement that really sets the stage for lifelong healthy dietary habits.
One final thought: most nutrition professionals discourage parents from using food as a “reward.” A reward includes only allowing dessert after our children eat their spinach, or offering a cookie if they cooperate with us. Such a reward system sets the stage in later life for turning to food during stressful situations in order to feel better. This can lead to a negative relationship with food, which includes overeating, obesity, and all the consequent diseases. In addition, some types of food reward systems can actually backfire. For example, telling our children that they can have dessert only after they finish their vegetable makes them dislike the vegetable even more, research shows.
I realize no parent, including me, is perfect, and that life happens; this doesn’t mean we throw in the towel. Yes, it takes effort, and yes, it’s worth it. We do have influence! Just remember these four steps:
keep messages about nutritious food positive
maintain a relaxed atmosphere at mealtimes
keep offering healthy options
eat and enjoy the food, too!
USDA Preschool Nutrition Research, Chapter 3: Nutrition Education for Preschool Children: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/nea/food/pdfs/roundtable_references_preschool.pdf
2. Why is my child a picky eater? By Mary Mullen, MS, RD and Jo Ellen Shield MED, RD, LD: http://www.eatright.org/kids/article.aspx?id=6442467922
About our contributor, Christine Reese, MS, RD: Christine has a Masters in Nutrition and has been a Registered Dietitian for 8 years. Although she is vegan and cooks accordingly, her 3-year-old son eats an omnivorous diet. Her background includes counseling on weight loss, diabetes, and kidney disease in adults. She loves talking about all things nutrition.