A balanced diet can help children grow up healthy. However, it’s not always easy to eat healthy when you’re juggling a busy schedule and when convenience food, such as fast food, is so readily available.
Whether you have a toddler or a teen, there are many things you can do together as a family to support everyone in eating healthier.
Parents and children can each have a role in making healthy family meal choices. Parents decide which foods to buy, which snacks to make available, and when and how these foods are prepared. Children decide “how much” and “if” to eat at all.
- Be a healthy champion for your child.
The best way for you to encourage healthy eating is to eat well yourself. Children will follow the lead of the adults they see every day. By eating fruits and vegetables and not overindulging in less nutritious foods and beverages, you’ll be sending the right message.
Another way to be a good role model is to limit portions and not overeat. Talk about your feelings of fullness, especially with younger children. You might say, “This is delicious, but I’m full, so I’m going to stop eating.” Similarly, parents who are always dieting or complaining about their bodies may foster these same negative feelings in their children.
- Involve children in meal planning and preparation.
Most children will enjoy deciding what to make for dinner. Talk to them about making choices and planning a balanced meal. Some might even want to help shop for ingredients and prepare the meal.
At the store, teach children to check out food labels to begin understanding what to look for. In the kitchen, select age-appropriate tasks so your child can play a part without getting injured or feeling overwhelmed. And at the end of the meal, don’t forget to praise the chef.
School lunches can be another learning lesson for children. More important, if you can get them thinking about what they eat for lunch, you might be able to help them make positive changes. Brainstorm about what kinds of foods they’d like for lunch or go to the grocery store to shop together for healthy, packable foods.
There’s another important reason why children should be involved: It can help prepare them to make good decisions on their own about the foods they want to eat. That’s not to say that your child will suddenly want a salad instead of french fries, but the mealtime habits you help create now can lead to a lifetime of healthier choices.
- Try to keep a positive attitude about food.
It’s easy for food to become a source of conflict. Well-intentioned parents might find themselves bargaining or bribing children so they eat the healthy food in front of them. A better strategy is to give children some control, but to also limit the kind of foods available at home.
Children should decide if they’re hungry, what they will eat from the foods served, and when they’re full. Parents control which foods are available to the child, both at mealtime and between meals. Here are some guidelines to follow:
- Establish a predictable schedule of meals and snacks. It’s OK to choose not to eat when both parents and children know when to expect the next meal or snack.
- Don’t force children to clean their plates. Doing so teaches them to override feelings of fullness.
- Don’t bribe or reward children with food. Avoid using dessert as the prize for eating the meal.
- Don’t use food as a way of showing love. When you want to show love, give children a hug, some of your time, or praise.
- Pay attention to portion size.
In the last 20 years, our portion sizes have gotten much larger. In fact, larger portions make it easier to overeat or consume more energy than your body needs. A single meal can contain a whole day’s worth of calories.
A portion is defined as “the amount of food or drink you choose to eat.”A portion can include several food groups, like a sandwich (grain, meat, vegetable).
Sometimes it’s okay to have more than one portion, like when you have been really active. Just remember to pay attention to when you are truly hungry, eat slowly, and to stop eating when you are full.
See how some of the portions sizes have grown, for example:
- Today we have bagels that measure 6 inches wide. But a single serving is only 2 inches wide. The difference is 210 calories.
- The size of today’s typical cheeseburger has 590 calories, but 20 years ago a burger was the size of a kids meal burger. That’s a difference of 230 calories.
- The size of a soda 20 years ago was 6.5 ounces. Now we have 12-ounce cans and 20-ounce bottles! Imagine how the calorie count have doubled and tripled.
Estimating the appropriate portion size is easier than you think. Download the Portion Size Guide (PDF) to learn how to use your hands to estimate portion sizes.
To learn the right amount of food for you and your child(ren), visit the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate website.
- Don't forget to eat breakfast daily.
Research has shown that children who eat breakfast have better overall nutrition, energy, and brain function; get sick less often; and have better general health.
Make time for a healthy breakfast on school days with these easy tips that take less than 10 minutes to prepare and eat:
- Keep a bowl of sliced fruit in the refrigerator to quickly toss on top of cereal or into low-fat or nonfat yogurt.
- What could be quicker than a glass of low-fat or nonfat milk, a piece of fruit, and whole wheat bread with a slice of low-fat cheese or peanut butter?
- Instant oatmeal microwaves in 2 minutes; add sliced fruit and a glass of low-fat or nonfat milk for a quick, hearty and nutritious meal.
- Melt grated or sliced cheese in a tortilla in the microwave. Roll it up and eat on the go. If time permits, add diced tomatoes and smoked turkey.
- Scrambled eggs are super quick too! They cook in just a few minutes in the microwave or a pan. Roll them up in a warm tortilla with salsa or low-fat cheese.
- On the weekend, prepare a batch of whole grain muffins made with fresh, frozen (no sugar added), or dried fruit. Freeze for a quick grab-and-go breakfast.
Visit the USDA’s MyPlate Breakfast page on Pinterest for additional healthy breakfast recipes.
- Make your snacks healthy.
Snacking provides energy between meals and essential nutrients to help children meet their growing needs. Download our list of 100-calorie snack ideas (PDF) that are fun, easy to prepare, and favorites of children and adults alike.