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Tips for Developing Healthy Eating Habits in Young Children

Edited By: Natalie Smith

By Tirsa Shani – a Pediatric Clinical Dietician

 For many parents, meal time is not an opportunity to eat and take a break from the stress of the day, but rather a battle scene where they struggle to make their children eat every single day. There is a very wide variety of eating problems that parents may encounter, from children who are unwilling to eat vegetables, through extreme selectivity and even obesity problems at an early age. To help you deal with these problems best and avoid them, you should familiarize yourself with the following helpful tips.

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How to manage your meals in a positive way

Before the meal, it is important to ensure that parents and children share a clear responsibility. When each side is aware of its role and doesn’t try to dictate terms to the other side, the chances of unnecessary disputes and arguments are significantly reduced.

Parents are responsible for:

  • The type of food they buy - whether morning cereal will contain a lot or a little sugar, how varied the food in the fridge and pantry are etc.
  • How to prepare the food served - whether the chicken is fried or baked.
  • Eating times - There shouldn’t be continuous snacking throughout the day, so children will be hungry when meal time rolls around.
  • Where to eat - at the kitchen table and not in front of the television, because it distracts children from their sense of hunger or satiety.

Children are responsible for:

How much they eat - Children can’t be forced to eat beyond the amount they feel full, and you can’t tell a child "you’ve eaten enough" if they are still hungry. It is possible to help children be attentive to the feelings their stomach gives them. Ask the child before eating "How does your stomach feel?" You can repeat the question again during the meal and again at the end of the meal.

What to eat from the selection offered - Each child has his or her nutritional preferences, which are created for a variety of reasons. Some because of what they were exposed to as fetuses, some as a result of the eating habit of their surroundings, and some as a result of other reasons. All children are born with a preference for sweet, and recently we are also seeing a preference for industrial foods containing high sodium.

To encourage children to taste and experience different foods, you can use the following ideas:

  • Give the child small portions - a small amount encourages the child to taste, gives them a choice and shows them they don’t need to finish everything.
  • Recurrent Exposure - Keep in mind that according to many studies 15 to 20 exposures, at minimum, are needed, until a certain type of food is readily accepted by the child.
  • Fixed days - decide on a fixed day of the week when you prepare a dish that is new for you too. Let the child know what you’re cooking in advance and share your excitement about the dish before tasting it.
  • Eating together - Avoid making special meals for your child. Make sure that the dishes served at the family table have at least 2 foods that the child eats.
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Why are family meals important?

A family meal, in which the whole family sits at the table and eats together, has many benefits. The child is exposed to a wide range of foods that you eat, and not just to the dish you cooked for them. Parents have a great influence on what the child eats because they act as role models. When children see you eating vegetables, they are more likely to be willing to try them. 

The meal is also a social situation in which children learn social behavior and norms related to eating. This is an opportunity to hear how your children’s day went and to share your day with them, this is important because lessons can be learned and bonds can be formed from these stories because they also learn from these stories. Starting from the age of one year, it’s recommended to seat children at the table when you eat, even if It means changing your eating schedule to fit your child’s.

It is important to create a clear schedule around meals, where between each meal there is enough time for them to get hungry enough for the next meal. This is in contrast to constant snacking from when the child gets home from school to when they go to sleep, which will lead to unhealthy eating habits. This practice often leads to many children being unable to recognize feelings of hunger and satiety and creates a situation in which the children associate eating with boredom or with the need for attention, rather than hunger. This is one of the causes of emotional eating in childhood that can lead to emotional eating in adulthood and as a result, obesity.

How to get the children to drink water

The habit of drinking sweetened drinks causes children to consume "empty" calories that don’t provide their bodies with nutrients. This is a habit that starts in early childhood and may lead to obesity, fatty liver disease and damage to the teeth. When babies move from drinking formula to eating solids they may find it difficult to drink water, this leads to parents sweetening the water to get baby to drink. It is important to know that the breast milk and formula, which babies are used to drinking, are sweet, making water seem tasteless in comparison. To overcome this difficulty, it is best to expose the child as many times as possible to their water bottle while they are playing, bathing, or anywhere else. Just make sure you don’t sweeten the water.

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The main reason for the decrease in the nutritional value of food that children eat is due to the consumption of industrial food. In the industry, to produce food with a long shelf life, various substances such as salt (sodium) and preservatives are added. In addition, there are many uses of sugar or various sweeteners such as corn syrup, glucose, fructose, and similar substances to make children love the products. The recommendation is to consume as few store-bought foods as possible, and at the same time, when buying a product, it is recommended to compare the look at their sodium and sugar contents.

The best choice would be cooking at home. In order to save money, you can cook in large batches and freeze small portions that can be taken out and heated as needed. The time it takes to cook a meal can be transformed into an enjoyable family activity by involving your children and giving them age-appropriate tasks. While cooking and preparing food, children's knowledge of colors, textures, materials, and actions associated with food preparation can be expanded.

What to do about sweets

Each family is different in its habits and rules related to dealing with the subject of sweets at home. Every parent comes from a different home, with different habits and beliefs. The first step would be to reach a clean agreement regarding your stance on the subject, otherwise, arguments may arise, and children will use the knowledge that you're not on the same page to get what they want. 
What’s recommended is not to associate sweets with eating a meal, meaning don’t use it as a prize or punishment.

For example, children shouldn’t be told: "If you want dessert, eat your vegetables." Such a sentence creates a favorite food - sweet, while basic food or vegetables become a punishment. If you want to give a child a snack, you can give it in between meals. In the afternoon, for example, be sure to limit their snack intake and always give it with a fruit or vegetable. It is best to eat this snack at the dining table and treat it like any other meal, i.e. no eating while playing. The child will decide whether they want to start with the snack and continue on to the fruit and veggies or just finish with the snack.

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Closing words
Conduct around the topic of food, the development of habits and the expansion of children's nutritional diversity are complex processes that don’t change in a day. When meals become power struggles between child and parent it is recommended to consult with an expert and solve the problem while it's still small so that it doesn’t develop further and cause eating problems in the future.
The author is a clinical dietitian specializing in infant and early childhood nutrition and a member of the Atid - Dieters and Nutritionists Association.
 
image source: Ryan DickeyDan Foy
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