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How to Establish Healthy Eating Habits in Kids

How to Establish Healthy Eating Habits in Kids
Food
Children, even teens and tweens, usually enjoy snack time. Snacks are small meals and a great way to introduce new foods because of the small amounts.

“I’m gonna brownie-love my child!” When I was a little girl, there was a popular TV commercial for a brownie mix.

There was a mother and daughter, and they were looking at each other ad

This article is from Health & Science’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.

oringly over the contents of a bowl filled with that brownie mix. You could tell they were spending “quality time” together.

Then the slogan came on, “I’m gonna brownie-love my child.” A mother and her daughter, in the kitchen cooking together; what could be more wholesome?

Yet, as a grown-up woman, I ask myself, “Why could it not have been a bowl of whole-wheat bread dough or green beans? Are we being reprogrammed to associate sugar and unhealthy foods with love, community, and family? Have green beans and whole-wheat bread come not to represent those things?”

Needless to say, media have a very profound effect on how ideas are shaped, one of those ideas being what we are going to eat. Food conglomerates would like to see us consume their products exclusively (they especially target children), but we do have control over what we put into our bodies. We all make choices every day about what to eat.

But does age Matter? The comment that always comes up to me as a nutritionist is, “My child is too old. She won’t eat a salad,” or “My son will never eat broccoli, he is too big now and has his ways.” Age doesn’t matter.

I have seen teenagers change their eating habits to a more healthful pattern; it just has to be done with respect and as a family project.

Anytime you force someone to do something, they will do it for a while, but they will not make it a lifetime practice. We want to establish lifetime habits; not something a child will do in front of you, but stop the moment they leave the house.

At a lecture I was giving, a man raised his hand and asked, “How can I make my child eat this way?” If we really want to set a lifetime pattern, we do not make anyone do anything; we teach. I suggest to him four things to do.

1. Do Things in Stages

Eating habits

Nutrition is the science that interprets the interaction of nutrients and other substances in food in relation to maintenance, growth, reproduction, health and disease of an organism.

Take baby steps. Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, said, “The most beloved deeds to Allah are those done consistently, even if they are small.” (Sahih Muslim) That is what I base my program on. Small things add up to big things over time.

If you try to make drastic changes all at once, it usually does not last. And when it comes to working with children, it is a recipe for disaster. You want to gradually change your diet. If you are used to eating out two or three times a week, most probably your child is used to that as well.

It will be hard to just stop. Instead, eat out two times a week for two weeks and give yourself time to get used to it. Once the pattern is set, eat out only once a week.

Children all have their favorite foods. My kids love frozen broccoli and they like candy, too. Taking away what they love to eat will only stiffen their resolve to not eat the alternative you are offering. Most children are used to eating sugary breakfast cereals. They just love it.

If your child begins his morning with a bowl of Coco Puffs, switch to Barbara’s Organic cereal, they carry a Coco Puff-like cereal. Children love routines, and when one they are used to is interrupted too quickly, they do not like it. As time goes on, one can introduce cereals with less sugar.

2. Make Snack Time Count

Children, even teens and tweens, usually enjoy snack time. Snacks are small meals and a great way to introduce new foods because of the small amounts. When preparing a snack, always keep in mind the three sides of a triangle.

Each side represents one of the following: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Because they are growing rapidly, children need more fat and protein than adults.

Snacks can also be something that children can learn to prepare themselves or help with. A parent can place the ingredients on a table for the child, and talk about what eating healthy means and what some of the consequences of not eating healthy might be.

The parent can also talk about halal (sanctioned under Islam) and what it means to them, and ask the child what it means to them. At the end of the day, if something is harmful to us, it is not halal.

Snack ideas can look like this:

  • Cut-up vegetables and avocado dip
  • Celery stalks, nut butter, and raisins
  • Bean dips, fresh vegetables, or whole-grain bread
  • Plain, full-fat yogurt, nuts, and fresh fruit
  • Smoothies
  • Nuts, seeds, and fruit
  • Homemade snack bars
  • Hard-boiled eggs, pickled vegetables
  • Cheese, crackers, and fruit

A brief note: Neither reduced-fat products nor synthetic sugars (like Equal or Splenda) should be on a child’s menu.

3. Build on Breakfast

Eating habits

Poor diet can cause deficiency diseases such as blindness, anemia, scurvy, preterm birth, stillbirth and cretinism; health-threatening conditions like obesity and metabolic syndrome; and such common chronic systemic diseases as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis.

I know that you have heard it before, but it is true: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Look at it as the foundation of your day.

If you grab a coffee and doughnut on your way out the door, that is what your day will be like. You will be struggling with getting your blood sugar in balance all day.

On the other hand, if you eat a nice bowl of oatmeal topped with nuts, fruit, and butter or coconut oil, you will sail smoothly through your day.

You won’t be fighting to stay awake or to stay focused. The same thing happens to children, it just manifests a bit differently.

Children are not adults, so when they eat poorly, it looks different. They don’t have the life experience or the communication skills to say how they feel; they usually act it out.

Kids may be constipated, have diarrhea, or lose bowel movements. They could be irritable, appear to have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or be withdrawn or depressed.

They could have trouble at school because they cannot learn or maybe labeled as “troublemakers.” There could be food sensitivities, allergies, and frequent illnesses. Something as seemingly small as changing eating habits can profoundly affect your child.

As I mentioned above, most children are addicted to sweets in the morning. They love breakfast cereal and taking it away all at once is not the best idea. Once they are used to the organic “sugary” cereal, you can introduce or have them pick from a variety of less sugary cereals. Eventually, God willing, they will make it to oatmeal, eggs, and, even better, dinner leftovers.

4. Do It Together

Children learn by example. If their parents eat poorly, more than likely they will have poor diets as well. Yet, once children enter school, they are more likely to follow the eating habits of their peers.

This doesn’t mean that the family cannot have an effect; it is simply a challenge to be aware of.

Children love new experiences, even if their tastes buds are not too adventurous. Offering opportunities where children can help out in food preparation is a great way to introduce healthy eating.

I have found that if a child cooks it, grows it, or is part of making a meal, they will at least try what they had a hand in.

Depending on the child’s age, the following various activities can be done:

  • Lend a hand in meal preparation, cutting, washing, and cooking.
  • Grow some food. Even small children enjoy this activity.
  • Visit a farm or volunteer at one.
  • Learn more about where your food comes from.
  • Read books about health and share them.
  • Have a cook-off. See who can cook fish, a vegetable, or fruit the best. Offer a prize.

There is something special and sacred in breaking bread together. Being a conscious eater is Islamic. We all should know what we are putting into our mouths because food has the potential to alter us; we are rebuilt with the nurturance in our food each day.

When we teach our children what to eat and why we eat it, essentially what it means to eat halal, we increase their chances of maintaining physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.

This article is from Health & Science’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.


About Anisa Abeytia

Anisa Abeytia, B.A. USC , M.A., Stanford is an integrative health specialist currently pursuing a M.S. in Holistic Nutrition. Over the past ten years Anisa has pursued various fields of holistic and traditional medicine. She has studied at the oldest herbal school in the United States and pursued a two year certificate program in Islamic Healing. She writes regularly on the topics of health and nutrition. She maintains the website Women's Healing Circle, a site dedicated to the natural health of women and their families.

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