By teaching your children healthy eating habits, you can keep them at a healthy weight. Also, the eating habits your children pick up when they are young will help them maintain a healthy lifestyle when they are adults.
One of the most important approaches to eating is cutting down on fat intake. Simple ways to accomplish this include eating low-fat or nonfat dairy products, poultry without skin and lean meats, and low-fat or fat-free breads and cereals.
If you are unsure about how to select and prepare a variety of foods for your family, consult a doctor or registered dietitian for nutrition counseling.
It is important that you do not place your overweight child(ren) on a restrictive diet. Children should never be placed on a restrictive diet to lose weight, unless a doctor supervises one for medical reasons.
Other approaches parents can take to develop healthy eating habits in their children include:
- Guide your family's choices rather than dictate foods. Make a wide variety of healthful foods available in the house. This practice will help your children learn how to make healthy food choices.
- Encourage your children to eat slowly. A child can detect hunger and fullness better when eating slowly.
- Eat meals together as a family as often as possible. Try to make mealtimes pleasant with conversation and sharing, not a time for scolding or arguing. If mealtimes are unpleasant, children may try to eat faster to leave the table as soon as possible. They then may learn to associate eating with stress.
- Involve your children in food shopping and preparing meals. These activities will give you hints about your children's food preferences, an opportunity to teach your children about nutrition, and provide your kids with a feeling of accomplishment. In addition, children may be more willing to eat or try foods that they help prepare.
- Plan for snacks. Continuous snacking may lead to overeating, but snacks that are planned at specific times during the day can be part of a nutritious diet, without spoiling a child's appetite at meal times. You should make snacks as nutritious as possible, without depriving your children of occasional chips or cookies, especially at parties or other social events.
- Discourage eating meals or snacks while watching TV. Try to eat only in designated areas of your home, such as the dining room or kitchen. Eating in front of the TV may make it difficult to pay attention to feelings of fullness, and may lead to overeating.
- Encourage your children to choose water as their beverage. Overconsumption of sweetened drinks and sodas has been linked to increased rates of obesity in children.
- Try not to use food to punish or reward your children. Withholding food as a punishment may lead children to worry that they will not get enough food. For example, sending children to bed without any dinner may cause them to worry that they will go hungry. As a result, children may try to eat whenever they get a chance. Similarly, when foods, such as sweets, are used as a reward, children may assume that these foods are better or more valuable than other foods. For example, telling children that they will get dessert if they eat all of their vegetables sends the wrong message about vegetables.
- Make sure your children's meals outside the home are balanced. Find out more about their school lunch program, or pack their lunch to include a variety of foods. Also, select healthier items when dining at restaurants.
Reviewed by the Department of Nutrition Therapy at The Cleveland Clinic.
Edited by Cynthia Haines, MD, WebMD, August 2004.
Portions of this page © The Cleveland Clinic 2000-2004