- Healthy eating means consuming enough of the right nutrients for optimal health and well-being.
- Banning certain food groups, labeling snacks “unhealthy,” and body-shaming won’t help, experts say.
- Instead, offer nourishing foods, encourage mindfulness, and get help for disordered eating habits.
Terms like “healthy” leave a lot of wiggle room as to what positive eating habits actually mean, especially for kids. In this case, healthy eating means consuming a nourishing and balanced diet, with enough of each food group to meet daily nutrition needs.
That said, healthy eating habits go beyond nutritional needs alone. You’ll also want to consider things like meal planning, mealtimes, your kids’ emotional health, and of course, the messages you send about food and eating.
These seven tips can help foster a more positive relationship with food and eating — for your whole family.
1. Avoid banning entire food groups
Dietary guidelines for kids recommend eating from every food group for a balanced intake of macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients include protein, carbohydrates, and fats, while micronutrients include vitamins and minerals.
Many well-meaning parents try to limit “unhealthy” foods, such as cookies or potato chips. But it can be dangerous to label foods as healthy or unhealthy, or good or bad, says Lauren Muhlheim, a psychologist at Eating Disorder Therapy LA and author of “When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder.”
Making a food off-limits, or requiring kids to “earn” dessert, sets those foods up as a higher-value, more desirable food. As a result, these foods may intrigue your kids more than other foods, which may make them more likely to binge eat that food when they have access to it, Muhlheim says.
What’s more, insisting your kids eat only so-called “healthy” foods can contribute to shame around food that may carry into adulthood and play a part in disordered eating behaviors, says Kristin Carlino, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in private practice.
- Eating a variety of foods yourself: “Kids tend to model behaviors they see in adults, so if they see parents or guardians eating balanced meals, they are much more likely to do it themselves,” Carlino says.
- Including all foods in moderation: While experts emphasize limiting added sugars, saturated fats, and salt, most kids without allergies or dietary restrictions can still enjoy an occasional sweet treat or processed snack as part of a balanced diet.
- Keeping nourishing snacks on hand for your kids to eat between meals: Kid-friendly options include fruit, fresh veggie sticks with hummus and nut or seed butter, lean proteins like turkey, boiled eggs, and homemade smoothies made with whole fruits and vegetables.
2. Encourage regular mealtimes with the family
Family mealtimes offer a great way for you to connect with your kids and encourage positive eating habits at the same time.
Dining in a group while having conversations can help your kids consume food at a slower pace — as opposed to munching distractedly while watching TV.
Eating more slowly can improve digestion and make you less likely to have an upset stomach after. This can also help you feel more full after eating.
Setting regular mealtimes as part of your family routine can also:
- Help you establish family routines, which can help you bond with your children
- Encourage mindful eating, or listening to your body’s needs in the moment, which can foster awareness of your physical hunger cues while eating
- Give kids a chance to connect and talk, which can help them feel supported in the face of various life stressors
- Remind kids that food is a necessary and enjoyable part of life
3. Involve kids in meal planning and preparation
Many kids will eat meals more readily when they get a say in what goes on the table.
Encouraging your kids and teens to identify their unique tastes and help plan meals also fosters responsibility and independence while developing early groundwork for self-care. That’s because getting involved in meal times teaches kids skills for planning and preparing balanced meals as they become young adults.
Carlino suggests asking kids things like:
- Which meals or foods do you like most? What meal could we make together with those foods?
- Do you prefer the creativity of brainstorming meal ideas or getting a little messy with prep work?
- For younger kids: What color fruit or vegetable should go with this meal?
- For older kids: What lunch or snacks will give you energy for your day?
4. Avoid diets
Restrictive diets and body shaming can cause major harm to your child — these practices may:
If your child’s doctor recommends helping them lose weight, you can safely support your child without shaming them by:
- Offering nourishing snacks: Keep filling foods on hand, such as Greek yogurt topped with plain fruit or hummus and whole-grain crackers. Save empty-calorie foods like chips or cookies for occasional snacks.
- Encouraging family exercise: Join them in getting regular physical activity like dancing, biking, yoga, or running.
- Stocking low-sugar drinks: Replace drinks like soda or juice with water, herbal tea, or unsweetened sparkling water to lower their sugar intake.
Asking open-ended questions instead of saying things like, “You can’t still be hungry,” or “You shouldn’t eat so much” can make a difference, too.
Instead, you might try:
- “I noticed you seem hungrier than usual. Was today a busy day?”
- “What do you think about taking a short break to let your food settle before you get some more?”
“Using non-judgmental questioning to understand why a child eats in a certain way can get you the information quicker without putting them on the defensive,” Carlino says.
5. Encourage body neutrality over body shaming
Body shaming might involve:
- Criticizing your kid’s appearance by comparing them to someone else, like saying they’re much heavier than their siblings or friends.
- Directly shaming your kid’s appearance, like telling them they’re too big to wear a tank top, shorts, or sundress.
- Talking about weight gain in negative ways, like pointing out that a celebrity or family friend has gained “too much” weight.
Instead, consider promoting a body-neutral mindset. Body neutrality, which encourages people to focus on what their body can accomplish instead of its shape and size, can help people experience their body in a holistic, less appearance-focused way.
You can encourage body neutrality by:
- Discouraging comparison: For instance, if they’re on social media and you notice them comparing their bodies to influencers, suggest muting accounts that leave them feeling insecure.
- Reading up on body neutrality together: These podcasts and books can get you started.
- Using encouraging and appreciative language: “Avoid negative self-talk about your own body or other bodies around kids. They hear more than you think,” Mulheim says. On the other hand, speaking positively about your child — and yourself — can foster acceptance.
- Trying mindfulness: Encourage up to 10 minutes of mindfulness each day to foster a healthy body-mind connection. If you’re new to mindfulness exercises, it may help to start with just one to five minutes at a time.
6. Pay attention to signs of emotional eating
If your kid seems particularly interested in food when they feel bored or sad, they might be experiencing emotional eating.
“Soothing with food is only a problem if it’s the only way your child can manage boredom or sadness. If this is the case, then you can teach them other ways to cope,” Muhlheim says.
Helping kids and teens understand their emotional eating triggers can help them develop alternative skills. You can start by asking how they feel when you notice emotional eating, and really listening to their answer before sharing your favorite coping skills. Simply listening and validating their distress could make a difference in their mood.
Alternatives activities to suggest might include:
- Playing a game for stimulation: Ask if they’d like to play a game or take a walk together when they say “I’m bored” and start rummaging through cupboards.
- Self-soothing skills: Trade skills like exercise or meditation you can both try when big feelings come up in the future. You can make this a game where the person who comes up with the most coping skills wins a prize, like choosing the next movie for family movie night.
- Making a list of things to do together: Draft a running list on the fridge of fun activities to try when feeling bored or down. Encourage all family members to share their own ideas.
7. Find more support
If you’re worried about your kid’s eating habits, a pediatrician can help you rule out potential health concerns and refer you to a specialist, if needed.
For instance, your child might benefit from food allergy testing or talking with a therapist or dietitian who can help them explore any thoughts and emotions around food without shame.
It’s best to connect with a doctor or therapist if they:
Food fuels your brain and body and provides the energy you need each day. In short, eating is an essential part of everyday life, not something that should inspire shame.
But the eating habits and attitudes toward food your kids learn in childhood can affect their food choices, not to mention their overall health and mental well-being, well into adulthood.
It’s always better to get curious, not critical, if you have concerns about your child’s eating habits. Asking your kids thoughtful questions, and bringing in a professional like a therapist or dietitian, can help them find joy in eating and avoid unwanted or negative emotions around food.