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Healthy eating for kids: How to talk to them about good food habits

Parents should model healthy eating behaviors for their kids and let them quit eating when they're full.
Parents should model healthy eating behaviors for their kids and let them quit eating when they're full. (Shutterstock)

"Finish your plate and you can ..."

Eat dessert. Get a toy. Go out and play. Or just excuse yourself and get away from these horrific adults talking about their boring jobs.

Bribing kids to finish all of their lima beans and broccoli is a parenting crutch with deep roots.

What many don't know, though, is that a growing body of scientific evidence has suggested tactics like that one are counterproductive and could potentially lead to childhood obesity.

"Children are born with an ability to eat to their energy needs and then stop," said Alexis Wood, an assistant professor of nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine, and lead author of a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association.

Rather than focusing on how much their child eats, parents should model how they want their children to eat and create a home environment structured to foster positive habits.

That's according to the statement, "Caregiver Influences on Eating Behaviors in Young Children," which summarizes years of scientific research on the topic.

By modeling, parents can give kids a framework to help set their little ones up healthy eating habits as they mature.

In short, it's not just about what food kids eat. It's how they eat.

Don’t tell your kids to eat more than they really need

There's growing science around allowing children to self-regulate their appetites to prevent reducing obesity in children.

It comes down to this: "Don't make (your kids) eat when they don't want to," Wood said. "Be responsive to their cues."

There's been an "explosion of research" in recent years supporting the scientific consensus that how children eat is very important to their health, she added.

Children between ages 2 and 5 often become picky about the foods they eat, developing an urge to show control over their bodies and their surroundings.

But in trying to coerce kids into eating healthy foods such as whole grains or vegetables, parents could inadvertently make their children overeat.

Habits like those can make kids become overweight "even if the foods are healthy," Wood said.

"During that time, if your goal as a parent is to say come hell or high water, you kids have to eat healthy, then you have to use tactics to get them to eat those foods," Wood said.

Often that means holding out rewards like dessert or video games if a child finishes all of her vegetables.

To try and kickstart healthy eating behaviors in their kids, many parents find themselves offering rewards or incentives to kids who keep eating, even if it's past the point of fullness.

Don't do that, Wood said. It's important to eat for your own internal satiety, not for an external reward.

If switching mindsets seems hard, don't worry, Wood can empathize. Taking these shortcuts happens to the best of us.

Wood once dangled the metaphorical carrot of a pack of Pokemon cards to her son if he ate some mushrooms he didn't like. (Not her best move, she confessed.)

"We're all going to do our best," she said. "I've seen how difficult this can be. None of us would say, 'We did this. It worked perfectly.'"

Five habits to embrace

The AHA's dietary recommendations for families sound many familiar themes, including a balanced diet with whole grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables.

It’s important to limit sugar and salt, according to HealthyChildren.org, the parenting site of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Of course kids love sugary treats such as cookies or soda. They taste great, but these are empty calories and don’t provide a lot of nutritional value.

Dietary salt is linked to high blood pressure and in certain demographic groups. It's important to note that dashing table salt on foods for added taste is a trick kids learn from adults. You can show them a better way. Besides just serving children foods naturally low in salt, you can instill a taste for healthier seasonings by using herbs, spices or lemon juice in your cooking instead.

Another tactic is to stay away from foods rich in salt, such as processed foods, canned vegetables, instant puddings, and bags of chips, the AAP says.

Here are some ways to instill a love for those foods — in the right amounts — in kids to foster a lifetime of healthy eating:

Be responsive to kids' appetite cues: Children are born with built-in biological processes that enable them to know when they're full. Rather than fight against nature, create a structured environment that enables kids to learn to trust their own bodies.

Eat at consistent times: Set boundaries around food. And if your kids do become overweight or obese, it's best not to single them out for a special diet, the researchers argued. Healthy eating means every person in the family participates.

Incorporate healthy foods into things they already like: You can pair healthy foods with more delectable ones. If your kids like ranch dressing, for instance, roll with that. Give them carrots and celery and broccoli to dip in the dressing to make the healthy stuff go down easier.

Model right eating behaviors: Make sure to "enthusiastically enjoy" those foods as you eat them.

Serve healthy food consistently: Kids with a sweet tooth might not gravitate toward vegetables, but you can nudge them along first by serving healthy foods without expectation that kids have to eat them.

And create a household environment where "less desired food choices are just not around," Wood said.

Along with eating healthy foods, the AHA's dietary recommendations also suggest being physically active for at least 60 minutes per day.

Find creative ways to stick to healthy principles

Getting that recommended amount of exercise is a little harder this summer as many families are stuck at home and end up being more sedentary during the coronavirus pandemic.

But there are ways to keep things fun and stay active while school's out, even while staying 6 feet away from other kids.

Activities could include throwing a family dance party, creating a scavenger hunt, waging a water balloon fight or planning an outdoor game day with contests like basketball or croquet.

You can hike in your nearest state or national park. Your family dog will enjoy going for more walks, and you might even consider becoming a dog walker for elderly neighbors or a local animal shelter.

And one way to get the whole family involved in health eating is to plant a home vegetable garden and show your kids how to tend to it. While growing herbs, lettuces and vegetables, your kids can stay active and take ownership and pride in the foods they're learning to love.

Come harvest time, just don’t make them eat all the carrots.