Even if we started them early, it can be tricky to get our kids to eat healthy. Kid food isn’t generally designed to be healthy — it’s designed to be tasty. Tasty treats are great, but when they sacrifice nutrition for flavor, they end up being empty calories. How can you help teach your kids healthy eating habits, when kid-friendly foods are working against you?
Don’t Ban Anything
You’ve heard the phrase “everything in moderation,” right? The same rule applies to junk food and unhealthy eating habits. Don’t ban junk food outright — that’s just going to lead to a household full of very grumpy kids.
Instead, instill rules that teach moderation. Have junk food as a treat, but don’t make a meal out of processed foods.
Make Healthy Choices Available
It might be easier to buy bags of chips and boxes of fruit snacks, but those aren’t the healthiest options. Instead, make healthy choices available for your kids. Keep precut fruits, veggies and cheese in the fridge, and nuts and healthy dry snacks like pretzels or goldfish on the counter. They’re easy to prep and easier for little hands to grab.
Get Enough Sleep
Getting your kids to bed on time is an important thing. Having enough sleep is vital for health, and it makes it easier — in theory — to get them out of bed for school in the morning. Believe it or not, getting enough sleep also helps promote healthy eating habits. Studies have found that we crave sugar, salt and fatty foods after a poor night of sleep.
The amount of sleep your kids will need depends on their age. Young preschoolers need the most sleep, benefiting from 10 to 13 hours of sleep each night, while school-aged children will only need between 9 and 11 hours. Plan your evening schedule around these sleep needs to make sure everyone is getting enough shuteye.
Meal Prep Is Your Friend
No one likes trying to come up with a plan for dinner after a long day of work or school. That’s when you end up ordering a pizza or stocking up on Happy Meals. Spending an hour or two on the weekend prepping your meals for the week can make healthy eating a lot easier. With most meal prep recipes, all you need to do is throw it in the oven — all the chopping and precooking is already done!
There are plenty of healthy, kid-friendly recipes out there. It might take a little bit of trial and error before you figure out which recipes work the best for your family.
Stick to a Schedule
Yes, we know — putting little kids on a schedule is akin to herding cats across a wide body of water. However, sticking to a meal and snack schedule can help make it easier to reinforce those healthy eating habits. Keep your meals at the same time every day, and try to eat your snacks at the same time in the morning and afternoon.
If you’ve got school-aged kids, have healthy snacks available for them once they come home from school — we all know school food is awful, so they’re bound to be hungry by the time they climb off the bus.
Encourage Them to Make Healthy Choices
Your kids are always looking for new ways to express their independence. This could manifest itself as your kids demanding to choose their own outfits, no matter how badly they are mismatched, or in wanting to choose their own foods when you go out to eat. This is the best time to start encouraging them to make healthy eating choices — when they’re out and about. Encourage them to choose apple slices instead of french fries with their Happy Meal, or a side salad instead of mac and cheese if you go to a restaurant.
They’re not always going to make healthy choices — and that’s OK. You don’t always make healthy choices, either! It’s a good start though, especially when they’re going to be away from you at school or day care.
Lead by Example
You’ve probably told your kids to do what you say instead of what you do, but no matter how many times we say it, the fact remains — our kids learn by watching us. Telling your kids to make healthy choices isn’t as effective if you’re pigging out on chocolate and potato chips while you expect them to eat a salad.
Make those healthy choices a familywide project. You don’t have to replace all your snacks with carrots and celery, but make it a point to try to make healthier choices with your family.
Don’t Threaten Them With Starving Children
You remember that trick, right? Your parents would tell you to finish all the food on your plate because there were starving children in other countries.
Stop with that crap.
Making your kids finish all the food on their plates encourages overeating. Instead, help them learn how to stop eating when they start to feel full. Save leftovers if they tend to get hungry later in the evening, or have healthy snacks available for them.
Getting your family to follow eating healthy eating habits doesn’t have to be a giant chore. Start by taking a few simple steps, make the changes slowly and you’ll see a difference in no time.
Jennifer Landis is a mom and wife with a fierce love for peanut butter, naps, and boy bands. She practices yoga regularly even though her husband doesn’t think it counts as exercise. She is the editor and creative mastermind behind Mindfulness Mama. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferELandis.