Create healthy eating environments for children

Published 1:44 pm Friday, May 29, 2020

We all want our children to grow up healthy and happy. This is one of the reasons we encourage them to eat healthy foods throughout their lives. A recent statement by the American Heart Association added clarity to how a parents and caregivers can help children develop lifelong healthy eating habits.  

In regards to reducing a child’s risk of overweight, obesity or cardiovascular disease, the environments in which children eat may be just as important as the types of food they eat. Parents and caregivers can create healthy eating environments for children by providing healthy options and then allowing children to make choices when it comes to what they eat and when they have had enough. 

When parents and caregivers exert too much or too little control over what children eat, this can have negative long-term consequences resulting in overeating and lower-quality diets. According to Courtney Luecking, University of Kentucky extension specialist in food and nutrition, children are born with the ability to stop eating when they are full. By pressuring or requiring them to clean their plate, we may be teaching them to ignore this natural ability. Rewarding children when they eat healthy food or punishing them if they do not eat healthy food can cause children to develop a lifelong dislike for those foods. On the other hand, if we allow children to eat whenever and whatever they want, they will not have the opportunity to learn healthy eating behaviors. 

Email newsletter signup

To help parents and caregivers strike the balance between too much and too little control, experts offered evidence-based strategies for creating positive eating environments. 

  • Provide consistent mealtimes. The structure and routine of consistent mealtimes creates rules and expectations for the eating environment. Enjoying snacks or meals as a family can provide additional benefits.
  • Provide children with many healthy selections and let them choose what to eat. Not only do they get eat what they want (within reason), it also helps them feel like they have sense of control and helps them develop their decision-making skills. Both of which are important. 
  • When introducing a new food into your child’s diet, introduce it alongside food that your child already likes. Children can be picky eaters, especially during ages 1 to 5 or when they experience different textures and tastes. They may be more likely to try foods if served with something familiar or when they have had a hand in growing or preparing a food. According to Sandra Bastin, UK food and nutrition extension specialist, there is hope for the picky eater. Research indicates that it may take 10 to 15 exposures before a child accepts something new. Just because they won’t eat it today, doesn’t mean they won’t eat it next week. But don’t expect them to like different foods if all you serve them is pizza or French fries.
  • Set a good example when it comes to food. Make healthy eating choices and let children see you enjoy the process of eating and consuming healthy foods.
  • Pay attention to children’s hunger and fullness cues. Avoid pressuring them into cleaning their plate or using food as a reward or a punishment. Instead, honor children’s verbal or non-verbal cues that they have had enough. 

Parents and caregivers play a significant role in the development of children’s eating behaviors. Creating healthy eating environments and allowing children to make decisions around food early in life can help them develop lifelong habits that promote better nutrition now and in the future. 

For more information about healthy eating, contact the Bell County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

Educational programs of the Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of economic or social status and will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, creed, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expressions, pregnancy, marital status, genetic information, age, veteran status, or physical or mental disability. 

Courtney Luecking and Sandra Bastin, extension specialists in food and nutrition and the American Heart Association