How can parents model good food behavior for children?

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            As parents and caregivers, we do everything we can to be a positive role model for our children. From teaching our kids how to treat one another with respect to taking responsibility for our everyday actions, our children learn by watching what we do. As our children model their behavior based on the adults in their life, one of the easiest and most important behaviors we can pass on starts right at the dinner table.


            Just as kids repeat what their parents say, healthy nutritional habits are also passed on from one generation to the next. For instance, when a young child sees a parent reach for vegetables, fruits and whole grains, they are much more likely to model their own dietary habits in the same manner. In fact, studies have shown that young children’s food tastes are significantly related to foods their parents or other caregivers liked and disliked. Also, when kids watch an adult try something new, a parent has the opportunity to use the occasion as a teaching lesson where the food can be described by taste, texture and smell. 


            At the actual dinner table, experts recommend adults integrate something new to a child, one food at a time. Also, the best bet is to offer a new food at the beginning of the meal when a child is hungrier and more likely to experiment. Parents can also serve a new food along with a dish they know their child likes to build a positive association between the two foods.


           Something that all parents and caregivers should avoid, however, is to reward a child for eating something nutritious (ex. giving “junk food” or a sugary dessert for trying the nutritious food). This can bring about a negative association with the food they are trying to get their child to like.


            Beyond teaching nutritional behavior by example, healthy eating also becomes second nature when it’s treated as a family effort. Picking out fruits and vegetables together at the grocery store or planting a garden together can help children think of fresh foods as a fun experience. Parents can also get children interested in the preparation process, giving kitchen chores to the little ones in safe ways such as washing vegetables, breaking up greens or other supervised safe food prep like cutting soft foods with a butter knife.


            The family effort in nutritional guidance can also be extended to talking to children about food, nutrients, health and how a good diet can positively impact so many other aspects of their life (being better at sports, not having to go to the doctor as much, etc.).


           Another important thing to remember is that beyond meal time, parents should also make sure that the kitchen is consistently stocked with healthy treats and snacks. If there are sliced apples or vegetables ready to eat, kids will eat them if they are within reach in a cabinet or refrigerator. Another idea is to keep healthy snacks on hand during car trips because kids tends to eat more when they are strapped in a seat belt when active play is not an option. From carrot sticks to raisins and water bottles, having these items on hand can help kids develop a habit and taste for healthy snacks.


            The bottom line is that parents and caregivers have to take responsibility for the foods their children eat. When adults play an active—and ongoing—role in their child’s diet, the recipe will always be a success.


Visit abcquality.org to learn more about child care and development, search for a child care provider and learn about the state’s voluntary quality rating system. ABC Quality is administered by the SC Department of Social Services’ Division of Early Care and Education.


By ABC Quality Team at 5 Feb 2019, 11:00 AM