From earliest infancy, children learn through their interactions with parents/guardians and child care providers. Young children naturally want to do what you do. Working with children and families every day gives you a unique opportunity to influence positive health behaviors. You can do many things to help children develop healthy eating habits, and being a good role model is where it begins. Remember that children pick up on attitudes and behaviors—including eating and physical activity habits. They will learn from you which foods to eat and which to reject, so make sure your comments about the food served are positive. Mealtime is a great way to help children develop positive attitudes about healthy foods, learn appropriate mealtime behavior, and improve communication skills. Use the following tips to help you model healthy habits:
- Eat healthy foods together. Let children see you enjoying fruits, vegetables and whole grains at meals and snack time.
- Be willing to try new foods with the children. Children will be more inclined to taste an unfamiliar food if a trusted adult is eating it also. Compare experiences and talk about how the food looks, smells and tastes.
- Make positive comments about healthy eating—encourage children to taste all foods, especially new ones!
- Always praise children when they eat their fruits and vegetables or at least give them a try. Praise serves as positive reinforcement and makes it more likely that kids will repeat this behavior again in the future.
- Adopt family-style dining, in which all food is placed in serving bowls on the table and children are encouraged to serve themselves alone or with help from an adult. This helps children think about their own hunger and fullness cues, and learn how to make healthy choices. It's also a great time to teach children about appropriate serving sizes and encourage them to try unfamiliar foods.
- Make meals and snack time positive, cheerful and unhurried events. Children should learn to chew their food completely. Our bodies need time to realize that they've had enough to eat, and this is especially true for children's growing bodies. Modeling these behaviors and taking time to enjoy a leisurely meal teaches children the importance of mealtime and proper nutrition.
- When eating with children, make sure you're consistent in your messages by eating only what they're also allowed to eat. Children are quick to pick up when something isn't "fair," so don't create a double standard. If you eat sweets or other indulgences, do so out of children's sight.
- Seize the teachable moments during meals and snack time. Instead of watching TV while eating, engage children in conversation about healthy habits. Discuss where the foods you're eating come from and why they're good for both adults and kids.
- Allow children to observe you choosing healthy foods over less nutritious alternatives (e.g., sweets and high-fat snacks). Then tell them why you chose the apple over the cookie or brownie.
- United States Department of Agriculture. Set a good example—they take their lead from you. http://www.mypyramid.gov/preschoolers/HealthyHabits/goodexample.html. Accessed June 22, 2010.