A Lifetime of Health Starts in Childhood
Promoting Healthy Eating in Children
A lifetime of health begins in childhood. The food choices given to children impacts the relationship they have with food as adults.
“Early childhood is the formative, developmental period where children can be set on a lifetime path of good health,” said Dipti Dev, associate professor and child health behavior Extension specialist in the Department of Child, Youth, and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “It is during this critical time that children develop eating behaviors that transition into adolescence and adulthood.”
Through Nebraska Extension, Dev works directly with families, teachers, and childcare providers teaching them healthy eating strategies. Specifically, she offers a series of on-demand, online modules with short videos to demonstrate science-based strategies for establishing healthy eating patterns with children, hoping to prevent health issues later in life.
“Healthy eating is important because it is the key modifiable risk factor for preventing obesity and chronic diseases,” Dev said.
Best Practice #1: Promote Healthy Eating Habits Young
Early childhood is the time period where children discover what they like and dislike, according to Dev. Adults can use this to their advantage and lead children to healthy foods to help children make healthy food choices that lower the potential of having health issues later in life.
“Obesity and associated chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases, can all be modified by improving healthy eating,” Dev said. “If these habits are developed at a young age, it can create a lifetime of good health.”
Unfortunately, the majority of children in the United States fail to meet dietary recommendations, according to Dev. Therefore, she suggests children should be encouraged to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, and less of foods high in sugar and saturated fats.
From birth to five years of age, children are able to self-regulate their caloric intake or eat when they hungry and stop eating when they are full. Adults can support children to actually listen to their internal cues of hunger and fullness. Dev calls this mindful eating. Promoting mindful eating cues carry into a child’s adult life and help them respond appropriate to their hunger and fullness signals.
When children learn to eat healthy options when they are young, they are more likely to continue doing so into adulthood. Dev said promoting healthy eating habits at a young age is critical to overall adult health.
Best Practice #2: Responsive Feeding
The best way to teach children healthy eating is to practice responsive feeding.
Dev said responsive feeding means being active and attentive to the hunger cues of a child. For instance, if the child acts full, ask them if they are “full”, rather than if they are “done.” Doing so sparks a response from the child where they determine if they need more food.
Responsive feeding also pays attention to how the food is being presented to the child.
“Responsive feeding can be as simple as changing the way people present the food to the children,” Dev said.
For example, if children are taught that dessert is a “reward” only after they eat fruits and vegetables, it causes a dislike and resentment for fruits and vegetables. Instead, treating the foods equally changes the way children view those types of food. Doing so can also take the struggle out of mealtime.
Dev warned that forcing or bribing children to eat specific foods is not usually successful.
“Avoid coercing or pressuring a child to eat and avoid giving them bribes or treats,” Dev said. “These are actually counterproductive to encouraging good eating habits.”
Instead, following a child’s hunger cues and presenting food equally can make mealtime much more enjoyable.
Best Practice #3: Role Modeling and Food Exposure
Being a role model for children and exposing them to various foods also promotes healthy eating habits, according to Dev.
“Children are influenced by adults, especially at a young age, so childcare providers, parents, grandparents, and teachers can all serve as role models for healthy eating,” Dev said.
For example, the adult caregiver should try to eat healthy food themselves and have a variety of healthy foods available. They can also use descriptive words such as “crunchy” or “juicy” to create interest in the food for children.
The child may take more interest in food they are exposed to if the adult is also interested, Dev said. The child is also more likely to like these healthy foods and continue to like them into adulthood.
Further, creating exposure can be fun and there is little pressure when children are given different choices.
“Children are naturally curious, and they want to explore,” Dev said. “Allowing them to explore new, healthy foods will expose them to different options and find what they like.”
Dev said offering healthy food options does not need to be expensive and offers suggestions for budget conscious families.
“Families might consider attending farmers markets or creating a garden in the backyard and growing vegetables,” Dev said. “Children will watch and learn these modeled behaviors.”
Frozen fruits and vegetables are an inexpensive way to provide healthy foods for children, Dev said. Families can also purchase bags of lentils or beans for soups, burgers, etc. that last quite a long time or purchase only seasonal fruits to keep down costs.
In the future, Dev hopes to improve healthy eating by creating a Community Learning Healthcare System, seamlessly integrating technology and best practices into one system, while considering all stakeholders within the system. She plans for this to be scalable, transferable, and sustainable for use in hospitals, schools, and nursing homes.
For more information about Dev’s research of promoting healthy eating among young children or the EAT Family Style Programming, visit https://cehs.unl.edu/cyaf/dev-research-and-extension-group/.