They say, “you are what you eat,” which is why it is so important to have proper nutrition. As adults, we have lived relatively long and varied lives and by the time we have kids, our nutrition habits may have slipped a bit. As a parent to a preschooler though, you have a chance to set your child’s nutritional habits early and set them up for a life of good nutrition.
In addition to setting your child up for later in life, building proper nutrition habits is so critical for preschoolers because proper nutrition is vital to the health and brain development of young kids. Here are a few ways to build good nutrition habits with your preschooler.
Be Positive, Not Negative About Food
Eating well is something that should be held up as a positive thing for your family and your preschooler. You need to celebrate how good fruits and vegetables and healthy grains and lean proteins are. Let your children know that eating is an enjoyable process and that eating healthy foods makes you strong and healthy. They will think about food in a positive way when they have this type of the influence.
What you want to try not to do is food shame children about eating unhealthy treats or outright ban certain foods. This can backfire in multiple ways. Kids can develop an unhealthy relationship with food which will lead to eating issues down the road. They may also double down on banned foods and binge or sneak when they get a chance.
Almost anything is ok in moderation so make sure that kids can eat like kids and partake in some unhealthy foods along the way too as a treat. It will go a long way to help create a better relationship with food overall.
Eat Together as Much as Possible
This is obviously easier said than done. Most parents of preschoolers are incredibly busy and for many, having the whole family unit sit down together at 5:30 pm or 6 pm is often not realistic. Parents who create good nutritional habits in young kids, though, do try and eat with their kids as much as they can, even if it is only a few times a week.
As much as schools have tried, studies have shown that most good nutrition habits are modeled at home. Eating with your child models good eating habits like portion control, eating a range of foods, and stopping when you are full. It also makes meal time a fun, light, family experience instead of a quick, upsetting window that just needs to be finished. It makes meals less stressful which will, in turn, create better long-term nutrition habits.
Let Your Child Help Prepare the Meals
Yes, having a preschooler as a sous chef takes a 20 to 30-minute meal prep and turns it into an hour-long project. But when you have the time, it is a worthwhile venture that will help your children develop better eating habits.
Doing this will help with nutrition habits on multiple levels. Kids will feel a sense of pride in creating the meal, they will be more willing to try new things when they cook them, and it will help parents get a better idea of what their child likes and why.
Find kid-friendly recipes on the internet for your next meal and let your preschooler measure, pour, and maybe even cut (supervised) with butter or a kid-safe knife. This will not only develop skills that will serve them well in the future but help them develop nutrition habits as well.
Let Kids Choose Themselves
The old, “this is what I made for dinner and you will eat it” school of parenting has been shown to not work very well for developing good eating habits with kids. That said, you also can’t cater to your child’s every desire each night like a cook at a diner. Letting kids choose what they eat will help create good habits but as a parent, you need to limit these choices to a limited number of healthy options.
Before a meal, you can offer a choice of vegetables or protein – carrots or broccoli, chicken or beef – and let the child decide. This will give them ownership of their meal and make them more likely to eat it. Once dinner is on the plate, it is ok if they don’t eat everything as long as they choose to eat some of the things you want them to eat.
Choice is also important for snacks. If you offer the choice between grapes and potato chips as a snack, the greasy chips will win out every time. If you offer grapes or melon, you and your child’s nutritional habits will win every time. As mentioned above, treats aren’t bad in moderation but make sure that the everyday choice is between healthy options.
Food Isn’t a Punishment or Reward
We’ve all heard of and maybe even experienced kids being sent to bed without supper for bad behavior or having snacks taken away when kids act up. This will not help develop good nutrition habits because kids will start to develop the idea that they need to eat as much as they can when they can because things might be taken away.
On the flip side, rewarding good behavior with sweets and treats is not great either. Kids will start to think about these unhealthy options as “better” or “more valuable” than healthy food and take every opportunity to indulge. Likewise, it is not a great idea to pit foods against each other and make something like ice cream the reward for getting through the punishment of eating their green beans.
Healthy eating habits start at home and they start early. Hopefully, these tips have helped give you some ideas on the theories behind developing good nutrition habits in preschoolers. While most parents will never be able to stick to all these all the time, the more you try, the more they may stick. And, as an added benefit, working on these habits with your kids may help create new positive nutrition habits for parents–which most of us could use a little more of!
Sandra Chiu works as Director at LadyBug & Friends Daycare