How to reinforce positive dietary habits at home

Father and toddler eating dinner

The other day I visited my daughter’s pediatrician and I couldn't help but notice how different yet so similar we are as parents. You can imagine how packed the place was after the festivities. My daughter was among the last to be attended and so I kept myself busy, secretly studying our similarities and differences between parents and those of our children.

I noted with concern how we as parents are quick to comfort our children with food when they cry, how we use food as a reward or negotiation system and how we allow our children to choose what they want to eat, rather than what we think is right for them. I observed two kinds of parents; those who had packed healthy snacks from home and those who sought convenience and bought junk on their way in.

Here is the thing; you are either the ‘junkie parent’ or the ‘healthy parent’. While having outdoor errands, a ‘junkie parent’ will buy junk for their children like crisps, waffles, fruit gummies, sugar cereals, sausages, fries sweetened drinks, sweets, chocolate while the ‘healthy parent’ will pack nutritious bitings or meals like carrots, apples, fresh fruit juice, vegetable sandwich among others.

Snacks are a great way to satisfy your child’s hunger between meals, and also helps prevent them from overeating during meals. They are a great way of helping your child get many of the important nutrients they need while growing. However, snacks shouldn't be used as a reward or negotiation system. When this happens, the parent will most likely give junk and the child is likely to overeat.

Children learn fast through observation and emulation, they will pick a habit that is practiced by those they see as an authority. Teaching children to eat healthier foods involves more than just telling them what to eat. They think everything their parents do is right; if you buy them junk every time you go out, they will grow up knowing that these are good foods to consume. As a parent, you will need to eat healthier for your child to emulate you.

Snacks are important for children because their bodies are growing and they have small stomachs. They require smaller snacks in between meals to satisfy their hunger. When making these snacks, ensure you have foods from at least 2 food groups. Snack time is a perfect time to get another serving of vegetable, fruit or calcium; most children will get enough carbohydrates and proteins during the main meals. Make your child’s snack at home. Your options will be limited should you choose to buy.
So instead of the crackers, crisps, waffles, etc, go for Classic ants on a log: Spread one tablespoon of peanut butter on celery sticks to make the “log”, and top with raisins to make the “ants”, pack a hardboiled egg, cereals mixed with yogurt, vegetable sticks, and fresh fruits

In this age of big advertising budgets, children can be easily swayed into thinking junk food is cool. Attractive packaging, alluring brand names all give a false sense of the food/drink being natural and healthy.
Kid feeding herself with spoon

How then do we protect our children? How best do we help them in making the right food choices all the time?

A young parent once told me that certain foods and drinks are banned in his house and that his two children aged 5 and 3 have never tasted anything he deems unhealthy like sodas. Not once has he told his children why these particular foods are banned.

The only explanation such children may get is in the general line of the foods being unhealthy and that they will make them sick. Parents forget the little ones are constantly bombarded by these foods. They see others eating them without getting unwell.

When you are too restrictive on a child’s diet, they may form a negative association with meals offered at home; wanting and not getting can affect your child emotionally and make them dislike most, if not all meals served at home. This could lead to your child adopting coping mechanisms and becoming a sneaky eater by getting the foods they want from outside e.g. from the neighbor or by exchanging their snacks with other children at school.

Keeping certain foods away from your child might only make the children attracted to these forbidden foods. As they grow older and become less dependent on their parents, this kind of control can impact their food selection and intake. Previously forbidden foods may feature more frequently and in large portions of their diet since as they grow older, they experience unfettered access. This overindulgence could lead to obesity and other lifestyle illnesses like diabetes and hypertension.

Allowing reasonable and structured access to these foods can help your child learn to consume them in moderation. Forbidding them at home doesn't necessarily mean that your child never takes them.

As parents, we have the responsibility of teaching our children healthy eating habits. Instead of forbidding them, set good examples and be a role model of what you would like them to be. Empower them to make healthier choices without making them feel like they are being forced to eat or not to eat certain foods.

Provide guidance and clear explanations as to why certain foods shouldn't be consumed regularly. Consider the child’s perspective, reinforce positive dietary habits, give and receive feedback in order to help children grow up making healthier choices.
Geoffrey Nevine — IT Services and IT Consulting

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