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Healthy Eating Tips for Parents – The Antidote to “Destroying Your Kids Lives”

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“An antidote to the eating dilemma blog post: How to destroy your kids lives…”

Someone tagged me on facebook to an article entitled “How to Destroy Your Kids Lives”. I usually cringe momentarily wondering what I have been connected to and wondering if I am going to agree or disagree profoundly or be like – “mmeh”, usually the former.

The particular article was written by a mother, apparent personal trainer with some nutrition quals.  She describes a move Home delivered healthy meals for kids in Brisbanefrom an extreme scare mongering position on the terrors of junk food to a corrected position of a more moderate response to eating well most of the time and letting go some of the time. The article ends with a message that I might support, but the article is so full of guilt and accusation that it ignites such an emotional response by readers that it gets people’s back up and I fear the only useful message is lost.

The reality is this type of mother is the minority, the “obsessive controlling neurotic mother who is so terrified of unhealthy food she verges on disordered eating because food becomes such an obsession it affects her psychological well being” is not the mother I usually have to worry about or come face to face with. Although absolutely they can and usually do affect their poor children’s eating habits and lives.

Sadly the majority of parents I meet are of the view that it doesn’t matter or doesn’t hurt kids to consume unmonitored amounts of sweets or treats, because they are of the view “they are just kids and they are active so they can burn off the sugar” or because “it’s cruel to deprive them of sweets” or parents don’t have sufficient knowledge or grounding to know how to feed their kids well or tell the difference between what is nourishing and healthy and what is not, or because a healthy eating message feels boring or like too hard work. And often parents are being misled or fed confusing and conflicting messages about what is healthy.

The truth is the norm is no longer just eating junk or treat food at a party anymore, unhealthy snack food items now make up a huge one third of Australian children’s daily energy intake – that’s one-third that could be taken up by whole grains, whole foods, fruit or vegetables. And it doesn’t stop at snack food, fewer mums cook or prepare their families meals from scratch these days. We know that the increase in production and attractiveness of processed snack items and general groceries is a major contributor to this, but is there anything else that can influence a child’s eating patterns just as much, if not more?

Here’s my take on it and some research to give you a bit of a grounded position moving forward.

Strategy 1: Be a good role model:

how_to_teach_children_to_eat_healthy_1A recent study by Boots et al. (2015) found that parents can effectively shape their child’s eating behaviour and patterns by using modelling techniques. This means ensuring that parents model good and appropriate eating behaviours in front of their children. It is not just your words they respond to, they are watching you and learning from you.

Like it or not children will usually model their eating habits and attitudes to food off their parents first, then their peers and their environment.

Sit down together as a family to eat one meal a day at a set table.

Strategy 2: Availability Bias:

Children are more likely to eat what is easily available and visible. Make sure you are strategic about what you make readily available in terms of food in the home. Make sure that there is an adequate amount of healthy food and make junk and processed food scarce or store it out of sight. You are a nutrition gatekeeper, you can directly influence how nourished your child is by what you make available for them to choose from at home.

Parents have the greatest control over the food environment their children are exposed to.

Parents are nutritional gatekeepers, they have huge influence on how well nourished their children are.

Repeated exposure works, children will develop preferences for familiar food.

Taste is a driver for food preferences, and cleverly engineered junk food will often trump natural tasting food, so crowd out junk food or make it infrequently available.

Manage expectations that junk food is everyday food or available on tap.

Strategy 3: Restriction and control can backfire!

An interesting finding of the above study was that higher restrictive feeding practices were associated with poorer levels of child eating outcomes. In particular, when parents enforced clear standards of behaviour and structure and had low responsiveness, this tended to predict restrictive feeding. Restrictive feeding practices include restricting a child’s access to certain foods (usually unhealthy foods) in an attempt to make the child eat healthier. Sometimes it is also used if a child is acting with bad behaviour in an attempt to convince or bribe the child to stop the behaviour. A different study done by Durao et al. (2015) also produced findings in line with this. Maternal restriction was associated with an increased consumption of snacks and excessive unhealthy food intake. Interestingly, parental firmness and pressure to eat was associated with fruit, vegetable and dairy consumption above the recommendations.

Some pointers to unpack the above: what is useful you to take out of this?

Have reasonable boundaries, and encourage healthy eating practices.

– Teach them: we have to eat our healthy foods to nourish our bodies, so you can grow and play and learn and be strong.

– Don’t insist they finish everything on their plate.

– Do insist they choose and eat some sort of vegetables and fruit daily

– Never use food to reward or punish behaviour.

– Don’t make treats a habit or routine (e.g. don’ t condition them to expect something sweet every day after dinner.)

– Use words and explanations like sometimes foods, and everyday foods or healthy and not so healthy. They need to learn the difference.

– Allow them to have preferences, and work within those preferences to nourish them and feed them healthy choices everyday. They are more likely to choose healthy foods if they enjoy them.

– Feed them their favourite healthy foods they love to eat.

– If they ask for a treat, give them a small or reasonable serve and explain that if they want anything else to eat they will have to choose something healthy.

– It’s ok to say no sometimes, especially to unhealthy foods with little ones. You don’t want them filling up on unhealthy foods and then being malnourished because they don’t eat enough healthy foods.

Strategy 4: A new take on “emotional eating”

A recent study found that children chose healthier foods when the foods are emo-labelled (an image based labelling strategy using emoticons, happy face = healthy, sad face = unhealthy) (Privitera et al., 2015). Even if the child has food preferences, food choices seemed to be different when emo-labels were present. To bring this into the context of parenting, instead of restricting certain foods or telling your child that some foods are ‘bad’ for them, teach children to eat foods that will make them happy instead of sad. Children will be more likely to relate to these two basic emotions and relay them back to food choices

In summary, if you are parent and are looking for some tips and strategies to help your child choose healthier foods, studies show that positive parental modelling; parental firmness and ensuring that healthy food is readily available in the house are effective. In addition, the way you talk to your child about food may also be beneficial.

Finally get creative, you may be able to subtly influence your child to willingly choose healthy food, by sticking a smiley face on it. You could purchase happy face stickers and place them on your child’s plentiful healthy food options in their lunchbox to encourage them to eat the healthy foods before the other items (and try and limit the unhealthy options too). For example apples, a ziplock bag of fresh veggies with humus dip, yoghurt, a ziplock bag with chicken pieces in it, might all get happy stickers and then you might add a small treat which you would leave sticker-less or with a sad face on it. See what happens…

Now you have some more tips and knowledge to integrate into your family life. Happy eating!

Also see other articles I have written on healthy habits and tips for families.


Boots, S., Tiggemann, M., Corsini, N., & Mattiske, J. (2015). Managing young children’s snack food intake. The role of parenting style and feeding strategies. Appetite, 92: 94-101.

Durao, C., Andreozzi, V., Oliveira, A., Moreira, P., Guerra, A., Barros, H., & Lopes, C. (2015). Maternal child-feeding practices and dietary inadequacy of 4-year-old children. Appetite, 92:15-23.

Lisa Cutforth

Lisa Cutforth

Lisa Cutforth is a nutritionist, huge foodie, and owner (plus chef!) of Wholesomeness.

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