Blog series: Establishing healthy eating habits with your child

Posted 21 September 2015

Paediatric Dietitian, Ana-Kristina Skrapac

Eating habits are established early in life and form the eating behaviours that children carry forward into adolescent and adult years. It is never too early to start helping your child understand that healthy eating is part of normal healthy lifestyle.

Positive role modelling as parents is very powerful, as children learn by copying behaviours. Eating as a family can be fun and enjoyable as well as providing a platform for demonstrating the eating habits you wish your child to adopt, and for them to learn what the expectations are at mealtimes and where the boundaries lie. Some helpful hints for encouraging good eating habits are:

  • Keep mealtimes positive – mealtimes can be a time for children to learn social cues around eating, sharing stories from the day and enjoying family time.
  • Avoid long mealtimes – children have short attention spans, and generally 20-30 minutes is enough time for your child to eat at a normal pace. Mealtimes can feel drawn out when children go through ‘fussy-eater’ phases and protest through picky eating. Keep the mealtime short, as drawn-out meals tend to lead to anxiety rather than more mouthfuls.
  • Involve your child in the mealtime process – helping to prepare the meal with simple kitchen tasks can help to increase curiosity in your child around new foods and learning about where different foods come from. A simple mealtime routine could be setting the table, which helps to define the expectations and set the mood.
  • Children will eat when they are hungry, so avoid your child grazing between meals on snacks or drinks. This will only make them feel full before their meal and will increase ‘fussy eater’ habits at mealtimes. Instead keep to regular mealtimes and set snack-times to keep appetite maximised for main meals.
  • Encourage your child to eat mindfully – eating slowly and with awareness. It has been shown that children tend to eat more than they need (non-hungry eating) when they are distracted at mealtimes – distractions may be eating whilst watching TV, or in front of the computer. It is best to take a break from activities for meals, and helping your child to become more aware of their natural signals for hunger and fullness.
  • Ensure your child sees you eating the foods you wish them to try. Young children might pick up new foods from your plate, whereas older children will learn that consuming the new food is normal by seeing you eat it, and they will eventually try it. It can take 10-15 times of trying a new food before a child will accept it as a familiar food. Try mixing new foods with familiar foods, such as mashing in vegetables into bolognaise.
  • Meeting the 5-a-day for fruit and vegetables can seem tricky. On average only 10% of children aged 11 – 18 years meet the 5-a-day target. To encourage your child with vegetables, try serving them raw or steamed to keep them crunchy, children do not tend to like soft mushy textures. Combine fruits with foods at meals or snacks – grapes or citrus fruits give a fresh taste to summer salads, or try serving chopped fruit with cheese cubes as a healthy afterschool snack.

Source of reference:

* Bates B et al (2008/2009-2010/2011) National Diet and Nutrition Survey: Headline results from Year 1,2 and 3 (combined) of the Rolling programme.