And here I'm not talking about nutrition, I'm talking about how you actually feed them. What are your practices surrounding food? Do you have regular meal times? Do you use coercion to try to inspire vegetable consumption? Do you reward with treats?
Parental feeding practices have been the subject of a great deal of research, and this month, the American Journal of Clinical Nutritionpublished a handy summary of it all.
Here are the top 10 take home messages:
- Pressuring kids to eat fruits and vegetables and markedly limiting their access to sweets and fatty snacks, along with using food as a reward are all strongly linked with disinhibited children's eating patterns.
- The more inconsistent parents are with either eating schedules or serving healthy vs. unhealthy foods, the greater the negative impact of the parenting styles listed in the first point above.
- Having at least one parent at the family meal is associated with better consumption of fruit and vegetables, and a lower risk of skipping breakfast.
- Adopting a knee-jerk pattern of dietary restriction with an overweight child may drive that child to be more, not less, likely to overeat.
- The availability and exposure to foods at home most certainly affects children's long-term food selections and preferences.
- The earlier and more broadly a child is exposed to different foods, the healthier that child's eventual adult diet.
- The more fruits and vegetables available at home the more fruits and vegetables your kids will consume.
- The more fruit juice and breakfast bars available at home the less actual fruits and vegetables your kids will consume
- The greater the frequency of meals in front of the television and/or the lesser the frequency of family meals, and/or the greater the use of food as a reward, the higher your kids' intake of sugar sweetened beverages.
And number 10?
I'll quote directly from the paper, as it pretty much sums up everything else up:
"Children like what they know and eat what they like."
So to make sure your children know healthy, here are some straightforward prescriptions for healthy at-home eating:
- Encourage a wide and varied healthy diet introducing new foods frequently and early.
- Don't pressure your children to eat (one-bite rules are fine), or withhold dessert unless they eat their veggies.
- Don't reward them with food.
- Disband the "clean your plate" club.
- Keep plenty of fruits and vegetables handy, accessible, visible, washed and prepared and literally smile at your kids when they eat them.
- Sit at the table and eat with your kids.
- Don't skip meals.
- Dramatically minimize meals out and takeout.
- Ensure that as many meals as possible a week involve the transformation of raw ingredients (not mixing boxes).
- Involve your kids in cooking.
Or put even more simply?
Live the lives you want your children to live.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, MD is known as a "nutritional watchdog" for his advocacy efforts for improved public policies regarding nutrition and obesity. He is the founder and Medical Director of the Bariatric Medical Institute, dedicated to the (nonsurgical) treatment of overweight and obesity since 2004, and his personal website, Weighty Matters, is ranked among the world's top health blogs.