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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Oliveira

Fostering healthy eating habits in my child

My journey with food wasn't always a healthy one and that’s why helping my little boy develop a healthy relationship with food is a top priority for me. Growing up, my mother placed an intense emphasis on being thin, and never really taught me to view food as nourishment. Only in my early 30s that I embarked on a journey to build a healthier relationship with food and how I wished it was earlier.

I don’t want my son to have the same struggles. I want him to experience the joy of eating, recognize the power of food, and understand that certain foods can bring happiness without the need for excess. I want him to appreciate that it's perfectly fine to indulge in a sweet treat occasionally, but most of the time, he should opt for balanced, nutritious meals that contribute to a stronger, healthier body.

Raising a healthy eater is HARD and I spent a lot of time thinking about it, studying, and planning and it really paid off. Matteus is only 2,5 but he is a champion eater, even I get amazed sometimes. I know many parents have a different experience and that’s why I want to share what my husband and I do with Matteus and I hope that it will be valuable for your journey with your kids.

1. Offering a Variety of Foods: Exposing children to a wide range of flavors, textures, colors, and shapes from an early age makes them more adventurous eaters. We vividly remember offering Matteus 100 different types of foods in the first 100 days of his eating journey. The effort paid off as, at just two years old during a vacation in Albania, he confidently reached for mussels from a seafood platter. He didn't hesitate for a second but dove right in. It was a moment of immense pride for me and my husband.

2. Avoiding Forced Eating and Alternatives: Fortunately, Matteus has always been an excellent eater, which made it easier not to worry when he refused certain foods, which I know can be quite challenging. We adopted a hands-off approach, choosing not to insist on particular foods or offer alternatives. This approach was put to the test every time Matteus got sick, which was frequently due to infant asthma. During these periods, he often rejected most foods, which was very frustrating for me. We kept offering the healthy foods we knew he loved, like bananas, avocados, yogurt, and bread. Sometimes he ate; sometimes he didn't. But the real challenge arose when he started to get better and insisted on continuing to eat only these specific foods. To address this, we placed some of those favored foods, like avocado, on his plate alongside other dishes. He was then free to choose what to eat. Initially, he only ate the avocado, rejecting the rest. Although we feared that he might not return to his usual eating habits, we trusted him, remained consistent, and refrained from offering anything else. Within a few days to a couple of weeks, he always returned to his regular eating patterns.

3. Acknowledging Food Preferences: As Matteus grows older, he is developing distinct food preferences and we find it very important to incorporate these preferences into our meal routines. This doesn’t mean he gets to enjoy his favorite bread with peanut butter, every day, but it means he has it a couple of times a week during breakfast. If he requests it on a day when we have different plans for breakfast, we assure him that it isn’t on the menu for the day but promise he could have it the next day. This approach made him feel heard and more receptive to what was on offer that day.

4. Family Meals and Leading by Example: Mealtime isn't just about nourishing our bodies; it's an opportunity to come together, talk, and engage as a family. It's also a chance to lead by example. Since Matteus was one year old, we've shared meals, with slight modifications like added salt or spices in our plates. This approach makes a significant difference. Recently, we witnessed a great example, Matteus was starving so we let him start his meal first. With naan bread and a lentil curry in front of him, he was only eating the bread. I showed him how to get some curry with the bread, but he insisted on eating just bread. To serve as an example we also started eating and when he saw the way we were doing he began copying us, it became more interesting to eat like Mom and Dad than to eat only bread.

5. Involving Your Child in Grocery Shopping and Cooking: Children need to see food beyond what's served on their plates. They become more invested in eating something they helped prepare or pick out at the farmer's market or supermarket. While it may not work every time, teaching your children to cook is a lifelong skill they will appreciate. Since Matteus was about 16 months old, we've engaged him in the kitchen, and as he's grown, his tasks have evolved, and he can do more. Now every time he sees me in the kitchen he wants to participate.

6. Regular Meal Times: Teaching Matteus to eat when he's hungry has been crucial. This approach allows him to feel secure about food because he knows he'll receive it at designated meal times. It also encourages him to eat his meals more mindfully. Establishing a regular eating routine helps children tune in to their hunger and fullness cues, making them more open to trying different foods.

7. Avoid Using Food as a Reward: We've made it a point not to associate food with anything other than nourishment or the joy of the moment. This is crucial for maintaining a healthy relationship with food. It's tempting to offer kids food as a way to console them when they're upset, reward them for good behavior, or even to make them eat their entire plate. While these tactics may seem effective in the short term as they do work, they can lead to emotional associations with food that may have long-term negative consequences.

8. The 80/20 Rule: We want Matteus to love food and understand that it's okay to indulge in something less healthy, like ice cream. For us, enjoying an ice cream transcends the delicious taste; it's about the pleasure of biking to the city center on a warm day, grabbing an ice cream, and enjoying it while sitting by the canal with sticky hands. Food, for us, is also about joy, and we want Matteus to learn that too. We want him to embrace the 80/20 rule: 80% of the time, nourish your body with healthy food, and enjoy the 20% moments when food nourishes your soul. As an example, we have our weekly pizza nights. We know pizza is not the healthiest meal, but we love the pizza, the place, and the experience, so we keep doing it. I also adore chicken pie with puffy pastry, a recipe from my mom, and we enjoy it a few times a month, as it brings me comfort and happiness, evoking happy childhood memories.

We take immense pride in seeing Matteus enjoying his meals. Sometimes, we wonder if we did too good a job, as he loves to eat and eats quite a lot, but we'd rather it be this way. It has its challenges, of course, and we've implemented some tactics to help him recognize when he's full. These include serving our plates and not leaving extra food on the table, encouraging him to eat slowly, and offering veggies when he asks for more food. The key, we've learned, is staying consistent and adapting to my child's ever-changing needs to nurture a positive relationship with food.

What has been your experience in your journey to building healthy eating habits with your kids? Comment below! Let's learn from each other!

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