Teaching children positive eating behaviors during early childhood can help them develop a positive relationship with food, a balanced approach to eating and better health outcomes in the long run. According to the National Health Survey, almost one-quarter of children in Australia aged between 5-17 years are either obese or overweight. Obesity is generally linked to eating behaviors that are caused due to:

• Eating higher than recommended amounts of foods that are high in added fat, sugar, salt such as fried potatoes, ice-creams, cordials, meat pies, margarine and sugar-laden soft drinks
• Eating take away foods
• Lack in incidental physical activity such as walking, outdoor playtime
• Having food in front of the television or increased screen time

In the early years of parenting, caregivers often underestimate the role of development of healthy eating habits in children. This can lead to children becoming obese or overweight, enhancing the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes later in life. Hence, parents should focus on creating a healthy food environment for children that installs in them positive eating behaviours and help them maintain a healthy weight.

What is Your Food Parenting Style?

Parents, in an attempt to nourish their children’s body, end up imposing rigid authoritative rules around eating, which according to research can have negative consequences in the long term. In an authoritative approach, parents encourage eating with rule-based, directives without considering children’s hunger preference.

As a result, children eat more when they are not hungry and eat less healthy food when hungry. It is also observed that parents using this style often resort to tactics such as rewards or punishments to develop eating habits in children, which increases the risk of obesity and disordered eating conditions in children. The authoritarian feeding style has been known to limit a child’s sense of control, and his ability to recognize their hunger and fullness cues.

The second type of feeding style is an indulgent approach, where parents allow children to eat whenever they want and to choose the foods they prefer. Here there no rules or limitations and a child is allowed to lead the way. Children raised under this style prefer junk food, snacks, or foods that are low in nutritional value. It is also seen that they often struggle with developing healthy eating habits and don’t follow a fixed mealtime routine.

Feeding children a healthy way

A recent statement on “Caregiver influences on Eating Behaviors in Young Children” published in the journal of the American Heart Association,” reveals how healthy food choices are linked to better child nutrition and healthier eating behaviours.

“One should focus on creating an environment that encourages decision-making skills and provides exposure to a variety of healthy, nutritious foods throughout childhood, and not place undue attention on the child’s individual decisions”, says Dr Alexis Wood, Assistant Professor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Agriculture Research Services, Children’s Nutrition Research Center and the department of pediatrics (nutrition section) at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

How to Encourage Children to Eat Healthy Foods

• Focus on overall diet rather than specific foods

Include whole grain, minimally processed food in your children’s diet. Whole Grain food can be included in the form of breakfast cereals or oats as they are a good source of energy, vitamins, minerals and fibres. Avoid sugar-coated cereals as they can cause tooth decay in children. Consider serving pasta, whole-wheat noodles or brown rice during mealtimes. Snack noodles are usually high in fat and salt hence avoid giving them to your children.

• Cook more meals at home

Home-cooked foods are healthier than convenience foods because you are in control of what goes into your child’s body. You know how much oil, salt, sugar and other ingredients you are putting in each recipe, unlike in take-way foods. Give your children fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables to eat, as they are known to boost the immune system.

• Get children involved in grocery shopping

Taking your child grocery shopping will help them learn food groups, read food product labels, tell apart good quality produce from the bad.

• Make healthy snacks available

Children are constantly on the move and it is natural for them to feel hungry. Instead of giving them fried chips, offer them homemade wedges or oven chips. Baked potatoes or boiled mashed potatoes also make great snacks for children. Include milk and dairy foods in their diet as they are a good source of calcium, Vitamin A and D, fat and protein.

• Sit down as a family to eat

The benefits of sharing mealtime at the end of a day cannot be measured by calories alone. According to Stanford Children’s Health, children feel more secure and confident when the entire family has meals together. By encouraging your child to talk about their day and listening to them, you demonstrate that you value and respect him. Involve children in assisting you with setting the table, serving the food or cleaning up the table post-meal.

• Mindful eating

Imbibe the habit of mindful eating in your child, as it will help them comprehend cues related to hunger and fullness. Mindfulness can be encouraged by talking with them about the food such as asking them about what it tastes like. Tell them that the foods they are eating will make them strong, or healthy.

Adults can play an active part in developing healthy eating habits in children. You are a role model for them and they will follow what you eat and let them eat. Healthy eating not just proves beneficial for their overall wellbeing during the childhood phase but also extends well into their adulthood, thereby greatly reducing the probability of risk of obesity or cardio-metabolic conditions in later life.

At Aurora Early Childhood Learning Center, we always encourage parents to play an active part in developing healthy eating habits in children. You are a role model for them and they will follow what you eat and let them eat. Healthy eating not just proves beneficial for their overall wellbeing during the childhood phase but also extends well into their adulthood, thereby greatly reducing the probability of risk of obesity or cardio-metabolic conditions in later life. Schedule an appointment at our childcare centres in Doncaster or Rowville to learn how our educators support your child to reach their full potential.