Establishing healthy eating habits with our kids is about more than just a healthy diet. It is about developing a relationship with food that will last a lifetime. It is, of course, about what we eat. But it’s also about when we eat, how we eat, and with whom we eat.
What We Eat
Many of us remember the food pyramid. As kids, we were taught that whole grains should make up the biggest portion of our daily diet. Fruits and vegetables comprised the next layer of the pyramid, followed by protein and dairy. We were to eat fats, oils, and sweets sparingly.
Our thinking about the food pyramid has evolved. Remembering how much we had eaten from each layer of the pyramid during any one meal or day was not always easy.
So now we are encouraged to think about what each meal looks like on the plate. MyPlate.org suggests that half of our plate be covered with fruits and vegetables, with the other half filled with grains and smaller portions of protein and dairy.
In choosing what to eat from each section of the plate, I recommend that families:
▪ Choose complex carbohydrates, including whole grains, beans, and a colorful array of vegetables.
▪ Select low-fat meat and dairy products, and choose olive oil for other unsaturated fats as much as possible.
▪ Limit a serving of meat to no larger than your fist, and considerably smaller for kids.
▪ Eat a broad selection of fruits and vegetables, with a variety of colors on the plate. They are not only vitamin-rich, they also look appealing on the plate.
▪ Introduce children to fruits and vegetables at an early age. Never assume they won’t like something. Try it anyway, and if they don’t like it the first time, try again. Incorporate vegetables into a dish rather than serving them stand-alone on the plate. Or get a juicer and make vegetable juice at home.
▪ Avoid sugar, including jams, jellies, desserts, soft drinks, juice, and added sugar in processed foods.
▪ Drink water or milk, an important source of Vitamin D.
▪ Practice portion control by using a smaller plate.
▪ Try not to eat out, and avoid fast food. But if you do, avoid the fries, only eat half of the serving, and save the rest for another meal.
When We Eat
Establish regular meal times for your kids, and ensure that they eat three meals a day. Skipping meals interrupts the body’s metabolism and can lead kids to think of food as something other than the necessary fuel and nutrients needed for a healthy body.
Include at least one, but no more than two, healthy snacks during the day. Kids need that energy to power them through their day. Help your kids choose healthy snacks. Teach them to pass on the chips, crackers, and cookies, and instead reach for a piece of fruit, carrot or celery sticks, a chunk of cheese, or a handful of nuts.
How We Eat
Encourage your kids to take the time to enjoy their meals. Be a role model for your kids and put aside the devices at mealtime. Remind your kids to slow down and chew their food to aid digestion. Remember that we eat with our eyes first. Try to make meals look appealing with a plate full of color.
With Whom We Eat
In our busy lives filled with responsibilities at work and home and with kids running out the door to activities, the family dinner hour has become, for many of us, a vestige of the past. But that time set aside for a shared meal with family or friends is no less important than it used to be. Try to gather together at the dinner hour at least a couple times a week, if not daily. It is an opportunity to instill the idea in your kids that eating is not only for nourishment, it’s an age-old ritual of community. A shared meal is an opportunity for conversation, sharing, and a few moments to slow down in our hectic lives.
Developing a healthy relationship with food early in life will set your child on the path to a healthier and happier future.
Dr. Julie Cheek is a board-certified pediatrician with Unity Care NW, formerly Interfaith Community Health Center.