Survey says (the Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study, that is) that children pick up their family’s eating habits from birth to 24 months, and lifelong food preferences are set as early as three years. That’s why now that we started our six-and-a-half-month old daughter Breeze on solid food, I want to make sure that we establish healthy eating habits. After all, good eating habits can translate into a longer, healthier and more enjoyable life. Healthy eating can also prevent problems such as obesity, which is can weigh us down (yes, pun intended) with other medical and psychosocial issues.
One thing I must remind myself of, though, is that food and mealtime shouldn’t be a battle. Sometimes in my zeal to make sure that she eats healthy, my older daughter Raine and I bump heads (and we’re both very hardheaded). I need to remember that mealtime is a time to bond with my children and the rest of the family; it should allow them to feel loved, understood and respected—not nagged and threatened. Mealtime should teach my girls to feel good about their bodies.
According to family therapist and food and eating specialist Ellyn Satter, as the parent, I should provide healthy food choices and set the time and place of feeding. My kids decide whether and how much they will eat. If this division of responsibility is followed, then children will learn to eat well and behave properly at the table.
I also try to follow these tips for healthy eating:
- Choose healthy. According to experts, offering healthy food options at every meal, including snacks, is the best way to train children’s palates to prefer healthy food over overly sugared, salty or fatty foods. I have no problem with this during the three main meals, but chips have always been my downfall. Thanks to The Hubby, my own unhealthy snacking habits have been curbed (and thanks to me, he now enjoys the occasional bag of chips). Our in-house munchies now usually consist of granola bars, cereal (the non-sugary kind), yogurt and fruits. Experts say that kids will grow to like these if you’re consistent with your healthy offerings. My mom also enforced a ‘No Coke for Kids’ rule at home. But she always made sure we had milk, juice and cold water available. To this day, none of us go for soda.
- Eat breakfast! My mom always, always made me eat breakfast before I left the house—even when I was a working adult living on my own. But now I realize that it’s something I should—and do—enforce in my home too. Breakfast boosts your metabolism and jumpstarts your energy for the day; and helps with memory, concentration and mood. Skipping breakfast could also mean overeating at later meals, or snacking on unhealthy food. So get your child in the habit simply by offering his first solid meal at breakfast time. It takes persistence and patience, says my friend Inna, mom to Aleeza and Athena. “If you offer [breakfast] every day, eventually, by force of habit, they learn to expect it.”
- Eat a variety of foods. Picky eating can limit the amount of nutrients you take in. So early on, teach your kids to appreciate different flavors, textures and scents of food. Again, the key is to offer different healthy options at every meal. Don’t be discouraged if your child initially refuses a new item on your menu. It may take 10-15 presentations before they even taste the food. “I don’t force Rainie to eat something she doesn’t want to eat,” says an online acquaintance, Danie of her then two-year-old daughter. “If she said ‘ayaw’ I don’t take it as ‘ayaw ko forever’. I always think she [means] ‘ayoko ngayon, mamaya pwede’. I [don’t] force her to eat, but I’ll ask her to eat it at [another time] and she almost always obliges.” Take any refusal calmly; don’t make a big deal out of it (this is something I’m struggling to master). However, when your child does try something new, you can play it up. I tell Raine, “Wow! You ate the fish! Doesn’t it taste good?” Don’t feel bad if your child devoured her oatmeal today but refuses to even open her mouth for it tomorrow. That’s normal. She’ll eventually eat it again.
- Don’t overeat. Making your child finish everything on their plate, however, is something that you should skip. This could lead to overeating and possible unhealthy weight gain. Teach your child to recognize when they are full--and then stop eating. At the start, always give them less than they think they can finish. They can always ask for more. Then when they can get for themselves, remind them to get only what they can finish.
“The buffet at Dad’s was a good way of teaching you kids about not being takaw-tingin,” says my mom. “I told them you that we had to pay full price if you didn’t finish what was on your plate…So Ro would come back from the buffet table with 10 corn kernels and one piece of nata de coco on her plate…It was funny, but she learned to be conscious of her [hunger levels].” (of course by the time Dad’s came along, my second sister and I were theoretically schooled in the perils of takaw-tingin, so it was our baby sister Ro who got this lecture).
Conversely, children should also recognize when they are hungry. This is why ‘grazing’ or nibbling throughout the day isn’t too healthy. When eating without a real sense of hunger, children may erroneously learn that food is for relieving boredom or stress, not for fueling the body. In line with this, avoid giving food as a reward or to prevent tantrums (unless, of course, hunger is the cause of the tantrum) or keep them busy.
- Keep active. Healthy eating comes hand in hand with an active, healthy lifestyle. Aside from too much of the wrong food, the sedentary life is another major factor in obesity and other physical problems. Limit the number of hours your child spends in front of screens--TV screens, computer screens, even cell phone screens (My bad! My bad!). Go for walks around the subdivision or the mall (stay away from fast foods if you can!). Enroll them in their sport of choice when they’re older.
- Be a role model. The best way to teach kids good eating habits is to eat your words--if you tell them to eat their veggies, then you have to eat it yourself! And if you don’t want them eating chips and sweets, then make it scarce around your house as well to minimize temptations. “My husband and I discussed that it would encourage Rainie to eat healthy if we abide by this simple rule: everything that we eat in front of her should be something that we’re willing to share with her,” says Danie. Same thing goes in our house.
- Don’t ban all the goodies. Forbidding the kids from eating sweets, junk and other ‘bad’ foods will make them crave them more, especially when they see their peers eating. Occasional chocolates or sips of soda or a pack of shared chips won’t be harmful. “We want [Claire and Justin] to try everything in time, in moderation,” says another online mommy-friend, Cassandra. “It’s better that they learn how to eat the ‘junk food’ from you…and learn how to control…rather than from their classmates, or they make takas to eat.” In our house, we have regular chips night. And we make sure we ration goodies such as candies and chocolates. I’m proud to say that Raine is pretty good at self-regulating. She even sets the amount of goodies she thinks she should have, like four pieces of Nips after a meal (I would have let her have half the pack!).
- Enjoy food! Mealtime doesn’t have to be a military drill. Enjoy the experience of eating. Teach kids to look forward to eating by asking them help to prepare the food, or take them grocery or marketing with you. Talk about the good things about eating healthy (but don’t make it a lecture!). Get them involved with the planning and choosing of your menu, when they are old enough. And make the mealtime a pleasant family time--meaning no sermons or arguments at the table.
My side of the family truly loves food and eating. With some tweaking, I hope Raine and Breeze pick up this passion and still stay healthy.
* I wrote a similar version of this article that has been published in Smart Parenting Magazine