Healthy Eating For Children: Six Simple Rules

Rule #1 Make Every Bite Count!

Everything your child eats should be nutritious. Children can be picky and
inconsistent, so make sure that what they do eat is really good for them. That way if
they end up having two bites of potato for dinner, you can be confident that they at
least had a great lunch, snack, etc.

“Where’s the fun?” you ask. There is not much room in that little tummy, think
carefully before filling it with junk. And ask yourself why you are offering chocolate
bars or cookies at snack time. It is often the parent/caregiver who is deriving
pleasure from seeing children gleefully down a non-nutritious treat. Your child can
derive smiles and joy from many other places – it doesn’t have to be junk food.

Rule #2 Ban the word “dessert” from your food-vocabulary, and use “treat” carefully.

Make desserts healthy(not just fun) so that things like fruit, nuts, and yogurt
become part of the meal, not the reward for finishing it. All good foods can be
treats, but we often think of only junk as such – so use the word judiciously.

By isolating foods under these categories, you may negate their nutritional value to
your child if you are following Rule #1. Again it is usually a caregiver that delights in
serving a “dessert’ or “treat” more than the two-year-old who probably wouldn’t
care otherwise if they’ve never had triple chocolate cake with whipped cream.

Rule #3 Be persistent, not insistent.

It may take a child a while to warm up to a new food. Just introduce foods gently
time and time again until they try it. Never insist that they try something they don’t
want to, and certainly never insist that they finish their plate. Mealtime should not
be battletime. They will eat if they need to.

If you begin a power struggle over meals, you risk it becoming long-term. The point
is to get them to eat healthfully, not develop an association between food and
control. This is one reason why developing healthy eating habits early on is so

Rule # 4 Break the rules our parents taught us.

Many of us can remember moms putting food on our plates and expecting us to eat
it – or not. There were few struggles back then because children quickly learned
that if they didn’t eat what was served to them, they would go hungry. And after a
few nights of sitting at the table by themselves until they finished their peas, they
learned to eat them without protest.

We now know how destructive this can be. Many adult eating disorders began in
childhood, and many sufferers can remember these episodes at the dinner table as a

Respecting that your child’s tastebuds and moods are as different from yours as is
your spouse’s, or your neighbour’s means learning to break the rules of the “family
meal” from time to time.

Let your child have a “creative” meal made up of healthy foods they like, while the
rest of the family has their casserole, curry, or stirfry. So long as it is healthy, and
doesn’t happen every night of the week, letting a child choose their own meals
usually won’t create the problems our parents thought it would. It will more likely
foster a respect for healthy eating rather than an unhealthy association with

Rule # 5 Everyone Needs Breakfast

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day for many, if not all, children.

Missing breakfast can set the tone for their entire day and create a downward spiral
of too tired to eat vs. too hungry to nap… and so on. What adult doesn’t love to
have a hungry and tired child on their hands?

Many studies, and many caregivers, will attest to the fact that a good breakfast
helps children function better mentally. While most studies lean toward school age
children, this fact should be applied to babies and toddlers as well.

Many signs of the stereotypic “terrible-two” year-old is often hunger. Breakfast
should contain some protein for lasting energy, helping to offset the midmorning
meltdown. Prevention is the key because a miserable child often won’t eat, and you
won’t obtain your objective of feeding them well.

Rule # 6 Learn from your child

Our children know best more often than we give them credit for. Some tummies are
really good at letting their owners know when to eat, and how much to eat. Let
children learn how to listen to their bodies – many adults have forgotten. Children
never fit into one mold, and another person’s rules (such as the preceding 5) usually
need to be modified to fit your family. Learn to follow your child’s rules from time to
time… they may surprise you.

Ditch the Diet: No Forbidden Foods

Deprivation is not my friend. Although I have tried to make use of it in past diets-depriving myself of particular foods I deem off-limits or forbidden-it always comes back to haunt me. Most people who have tried to restrict their calories or change their diet will say the same thing-they end up eating more than if they had not tried to cut down in the first place. It is the rare person who can sustain deprivation for any length of time, and even those who can (such as Anorexics), often become bulimic or overweight when they can no longer endure the physical and emotional fatigue that accompanies scarcity. It is for this reason that diets do not typically work.

When we are told (or when we tell ourselves) that we cannot have something, we want it all the more. I experienced this recently with my two year old. She wanted to chew on a greasy, filthy kitchen sponge, and my best efforts to talk her out of it only intensified her interest in doing so. If I had a greater tolerance for germs, I might have avoided a power struggle by letting her chomp away. But my squeamish nature got the better of me and I vied it from her hands once it became clear that she wasn’t backing down (you can imagine how this ended up).

I often think of the classic psych experiment in which participants are told not to think of a white bear. These instructions result in one thing: participants inevitably think of a white bear. Thought suppression does not eliminate the unwanted thought. It is the same with that temping chocolate chip cookie or that slice of cheesecake in the fridge: if you tell yourself you can’t have it, they you will want it even more. There is great appeal in things that are forbidden.

If you find yourself obsessed with a particular food that you’re trying to avoid, or if your diet of the month is not paying off, here are a couple of things to try.

Give yourself permission to eat the forbidden food.

Sometimes this strategy is enough in itself-the desire decreases and no longer holds you hostage. You may find that you go overboard in the initial stages by eating more than you intend to. This is natural and expected. It’s like a teenager coming off a weekend of being grounded-he flirts with danger by pushing the limits and exercising his new-found power. Similarly, the excitement of being able to eat a forbidden food may feel like being let out to pasture after months of confinement in a crowded stall. But eventually, things will even out and that forbidden food won’t be quite so enticing any more.

Change your thinking.

If you’re trying to ditch the deprivation mindset of a diet, try changing your thoughts. For example, instead of telling yourself, “I can’t have that (doughnut, cookie, etc.,),” try “I can have it and I know what the result will be.” The result, or consequence, might be weight gain, low energy, feelings of guilt, or a glucose spike that is potentially dangerous if you are diabetic. If you remind yourself of these consequences before indulging, while simultaneously giving yourself permission to do so, the urge might just diminish.

You may be using this approach already with your children: “You can choose to leave your toy on the floor, and you know what the consequence will be” (e.g., not being able to play with the toy for the rest of the day). This tactic works because it helps kids understand the relationship between cause and effect, and it gives them power over the outcome. As a result, there is no power struggle with mom or dad since the child is able to make a choice and therefore retain some control. If you adopt this mindset for your own dealings with food, you’ll free yourself from resentment and deprivation. The compulsion to rebel against strict food rules will disappear, since you are permitting yourself to eat once-forbidden foods while consciously accepting any consequences. It boils down to taking accountability, which is hard to do but empowering when you do it.

Now if only I’d remembered this concept when a certain blue sponge was the object of temptation…