This article first appeared on Eat Right.
To be successful at helping your child embrace healthy eating, it will take more than a rule from you, or a handful of nutritious items in the kitchen.
Selling “healthy” to kids requires lifestyle and attitude shifts, not a mandate of eating rules. With just a little insight, you can skip the pressure (and the mistakes) and let the model of healthful eating and healthy living sink in naturally.
Understand Developmental Stages
Children are black-and-white thinkers and learn best by hands-on activities. To tell them vegetables are healthy pales in comparison to letting them make a salad or help with a stir-fry. Teens, on the other hand, may want to eat healthfully if there is an immediate benefit: better concentration, more energy or clearer skin. “Healthy” has to have some pay-off for teens. Otherwise, it’s just another adult telling a teen what to do, which will make many teens shut out the ideas.
Let Them Come to You
Instead of driving home healthy eating, encourage conversation about food, eating and nutrition on a regular basis. Welcome questions and comments about what your teen is hearing from peers, and be forthcoming with information when asked. When kids and teens initiate conversation, especially with questions, their ears are wide open.
It’s an Inside Job
Remember, anything we choose to do is ultimately something that is important to us. The same goes for kids and teens. Motivation to eat well comes from within, and you want to create this internal drive for healthful eating over time. Make connections between good nutrition and feeling good, fueling exercise with food and performance, and eating healthfully with being healthy, not sick. Connecting these dots helps to add value to the lifestyle choices your child makes over time.
Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food
Your home as a healthy haven sets the tone for how your family eats and behaves. If you stock your kitchen with nutritious options, serve up healthy meals and snacks regularly and don’t demonize pleasure foods such as dessert, your kids will be used to these norms, which may make eating outside of your home a little bit easier. When strict rules surrounding food are enforced in the home, kids are more likely to overindulge when away from home.
Parents as Role Models
Parents are the image children will mirror. Try to eat healthfully, be active, get enough sleep and commit to other healthy behaviors you want to see in your child.
With these strategies in mind, you won’t have to sell healthy or nutritious eating to your child — it will evolve over time, naturally.