When you’re an emotional eater like I am, it can be challenging to teach your kids healthy heating habits. If your kids see you overeating, eating on the go or eating when you’re bored, stressed or upset, chances are they’ll pick up the same unhealthy eating habits. Yet just as you can inadvertently teach poor habits, you can teach healthy ones too. Here are 7 ways to make it happen.
1. Eat meals together
According to a 2014 study, 88 percent of families say they eat meals together most days or a few days a week, which is a good thing because it’s one of the best ways to teach kids healthy eating habits.
A 2011 meta-analysis published in the journal Pediatrics found that children who eat family meals together at least 3 times a week are less likely to be overweight, eat unhealthy foods and have disordered eating and are more likely to eat healthy foods. Sharing family meals together also teaches kids healthy eating habits like mindful eating and of course, manners.
2. Sit at the table
Kids can easily fall into a habit of walking into the kitchen, grabbing something to eat and eat standing up. Even if it’s a quick snack, kids should sit down, slow down, focus on what they’re eating and pay attention to their fullness cues. Sitting down also ensures they won’t eat so fast they’ll overeat.
3. Talk about hunger and fullness signals
Toddlers and young kids may not be able to recognize when they’re hungry versus when they’re bored or simply want a snack. It’s important however, to teach kids how to recognize their hunger signals.
When I joined Weight Watchers, they gave me photos of several different sized balloons to describe the various stages of hunger which would work well for kids too. You can also teach your kids that when you’re hungry, your stomach makes funny noises and when you’ve eaten too much your stomach feels uncomfortable or even painful, for example.
4. Never use food as a reward or as punishment
It can be tempting to offer your kids a snack or a treat to get them to behave well in a public place or get through a doctor’s appointment without tears, for example. I often find myself falling into this trap but in the reverse way. When my kids start to act up, we’ll threaten to take treats away, which isn’t a good idea either.
When you use food as a reward or as punishment, you’re teaching them that food has power. As adults, they may treat themselves to dinner or a piece of cake after a long, stressful day or not allow themselves to eat something “off limits” if they’ve gained weight or didn’t hit the gym that day. Instead, give your kid a hug, a high five or a sticker and when they’re behaving badly, firm limits.
5. Don’t bribe kids with dessert
Dina Rose, PhD, author of It’s Not About The Broccoli, calls it the “dessert deal.” You offer your kids dessert but only after they eat their vegetables. This teaches kids that vegetables are less desirable than dessert or should only be eaten to get dessert.
Dr. Rose suggests re-thinking dessert and offering yogurt, baked fruit or a smoothie instead. Yet it’s important to teach kids that vegetables can be healthy and delicious at the same time. Although I don’t believe in hiding vegetables, you can roast them, add a healthy dip like hummus or add different seasonings for your kids to eventually love them.
6. Eat mindfully
Mindfulness has become trendy in recent years and for good reason. Studies show mindful eating can help prevent childhood obesity. A 2016 pilot study from the Medical College of Georgia at August University showed that mindfulness-based eating awareness training encouraged overweight teens to eat healthier and exercise.
If you rush through meals or reach for seconds before you wait to assess your hunger—about 20 minutes—you’ll model how your kids can do the same. Instead, teach kids how to savor each bite, chew thoroughly and put their fork down into bites.
7. Don’t eat on the run
One night, my daughter had back-to-back after-school activities and I let her eat dinner in the car. It was a sandwich and broccoli but I felt so awful about it that I vowed never to do it again.
Suffice to say, many kids eat snacks in the car and are forced to eat on the run because of busy afternoons or even mornings. And eating on the run can even cause kids to skip meals. According to a survey by Barbara’s, 50 percent of kids who eat on the go or in the car skip breakfast at least once a week.
Meals are meant to be enjoyed and shared as a family. Eating in the car or on the run in between after-school activities can cause kids to overeat and teaches them that eating isn’t important—but just another activity to squeeze in that day.