How to raise a healthy eater

6 ways to set your child on the path to a lifetime of positive habits

UNICEF
How to raise a healthy eater
UNICEF
11 February 2022

Good food and nutrition are the foundation of children’s health and bring benefits that can last a lifetime. Teaching your child about healthy eating from a young age will help them to have a positive relationship with food well into adulthood. And believe it or not, shaping these habits can be fun and healthy – not just for your child, but your entire family! Here are six ways to get started.
 

1. Promote positive habits

Your little ones watch everything you do – including at mealtime. You can be a good role model by reaching for healthy foods, beverages and snacks yourself, and engaging in fun physical activity. Choosing to put healthy, whole foods on the table sets a great example for your child.

Try including your children in food shopping and preparation. They will enjoy being part of creating delicious and healthy meals for the family.

Use mealtimes as a learning opportunity – look up the different food groups together and discover the nutrients and vitamins our bodies need.
 

2. Maintain a healthy relationship with food

Having a healthy mindset around eating is key for lifelong health and protecting against illnesses like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. You can help guide your young child by:

  • Helping them understand whether they are physically hungry. This will help them to become in tune with their body’s needs.
  • Staying away from using food as a reward or punishment. Using food in this way can cause children to form an unhealthy relationship with food.
  • Not forbidding specific foods. Making certain foods like sweets off limits can actually make your child want them even more.

Instead of saying no to unhealthy foods and beverages, limit the portion size and create expectations about consuming them infrequently (i.e. not every day). Talk to your children about why certain foods are better choices than others. For example if your child wants something sweet, explain why a whole food with natural sugars like a piece of fruit is a better choice over a processed food like a sweet cereal with added sugar. Try to use non-food rewards for good behaviour such as a fun family activity.

Did you know that the wider the range of their food experiences, the more likely your child is to continue to eat a variety of foods from the five food groups?

3. Let go of “clean your plate!”

Although you might think this could help your child get the nutrients needed from food, these behaviours can lead to disliking foods and having negative associations with mealtime. If you can’t get your child to eat their veggies, try to have them see you eating and enjoying them yourself. Your little one learns about food choices from you, so try to encourage them as much as you can. You can also try by offering small amounts of a fruit or vegetable with another healthy food they like or asking them to pick out a new one to try out together. Arranging fruits and vegetables in fun and colourful shapes can also help them look appealing on the plate. It’s important to remember that it can take a number of tries for children to try and enjoy new foods – don’t give up!
 

4. Make portion control a priority

Oversized portions can lead to weight gain, so it is important to teach your children about how much food they should have on their plate. An easy way to teach your child about child-portion sizes is to use visuals for example: A closed fist is recommended for a portion of pasta, rice or cereal. A meat portion should be about as big as their palm. The amount of fats such as butter should be limited to the size of the top of their thumb.

Did you know that children have an innate ability to adjust their intake to meet energy needs?

5. Start the day with a healthy breakfast

Mornings can be a rush for many families, but starting the day with a balanced meal helps your child get the important nutrients – such as calcium and fibre – needed for their growth and development. Try to create breakfasts with nutrient-dense ingredients like plain yoghurt and fresh fruit instead of sweetened cereals or pastries, which tend to be high in calories and low in nutrients. You’ll also find your little one stays fuller for longer.
 

6. Make activity fun

Children need at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Why not join in the fun? Try to plan family activities that get everyone moving such as after-dinner walks or swimming. And be spontaneous when you see an opportunity, like dancing together when a favourite song comes on the radio. It is also important to encourage your child to limit sedentary screen time (WHO recommends no more than one hour per day for children aged 2-4 years) to focus on active games that require movement.

Incorporating healthy foods and fun activities into each day will help your child’s development, improve their health and set them up for a lifetime of making positive, healthy choices.