How Can I Get My Child To Eat Better?

father and son washing vegetables together

At this time of year especially, grocery stores are stocked top to bottom with enticing snacks, making it a challenge for parents and caregivers to navigate their child’s nutrition. Here, certified childhood and adolescent weight management expert Alison Precourt, RD, CDE, a clinical nutritionist at UVM Children’s Hospital, shares how to promote healthy eating for kids, as well as overall physical and mental health.

How can parents promote healthy eating in their children?

Before we dig into nutrition-focused ideas to address a child’s eating habits, we first need to discuss the four pillars of health that affect how kids grow into a healthy body:

  1. Good sleep
  2. Limiting screen time
  3. Consistent physical activity and exercise
  4. Healthy eating

How does sleep affect a child's weight and health?

Kids generally need nine to 12 hours of sleep a day to function. Not enough sleep can lead to mindless eating, unhealthy comfort food and eating too much. Sleep is also an important time for kids to rest their bodies so that their metabolism works correctly. A poorly rested person may experience a change in their metabolism, which impacts how their body processes food and stores energy.

How does screen time affect a child’s weight and health?

We know that more than two hours a day of screen time, which includes computers, TV, video games, iPads and phones, is associated with higher rates of weight gain. The more screen time, the higher the weight gain. Limiting your child’s collective screen time to two hours a day is a good target.

How much physical activity should a child have?

The benchmark for a child’s physical activity is about 60 minutes a day, five days a week. This can be broken up into 15-minute increments throughout the day at recess, afterschool sports, outside activities, raking leaves, shoveling snow, walking to school or walking the dog, etc. This benchmark is important for healthy growth and muscle development.

What does healthy eating look like?

Healthy eating means picking foods that are in their most original, unprocessed form. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables contain a lot of bio nutrients and antioxidants to help prevent disease. We advise families to focus less on removing foods and more on including healthy options like fruits, vegetables, milk, dairy alternatives and good protein sources.

How can I introduce healthy food choices to my child?

Aim for your child to eat about five or six servings total of fruit and vegetables each day. (Servings vary, but a serving of fruit is about the size of your fist; for vegetables, ½ cup; for fruit juice, a 1/4 cup.) Remember, studies show that it takes seven to 10 food introductions for a child to want to try something new. Some tips:

  • Include a new food at the dining table for the child look at, notice and taste.
  • Avoid the clean plate rule and don’t force a child to eat food. Never use food as a reward.
  • Practice your own healthy eating habits. Parents have the most influence over their child’s habits, so if you are practicing good eating habits and being mindful about smart snacking, your child will try to follow.

What’s wrong with the ‘clean plate rule’?

Instead of pushing your child to eat everything on their plate, flip the dinner table focus to something else. Ask the kids: “What was your peak? What was your pit?” In other words: “What were the best and worst parts of your day?”

It’s also important to praise positive behaviors. Take notice and praise your child when they eat fruits and vegetables.

What should I do if my child overeats?

Do not serve your meals “family style.” Instead, make a plate for your child and portion their food by using the size of their hands as a guide: The palm is generally a good-sized portion for protein; a fist for the carbohydrate or the wholegrain; the rest of the plate (about half) can be fruits and vegetables.

Engage in conversation so that they eat more slowly. It can take 20 minutes for your body to recognize that it is full. If your child slows down, they’ll not feel the need to eat as much.

Eat a fiber-rich diet. Fiber acts like a sponge and expands in your stomach so that you have that full feeling while promoting good bowel function. Fiber also helps maintain healthy cholesterol, lipid and blood sugar levels.

My child says they’re hungry after meals. What should I do?

You can use healthy, high-fiber snacks to help your child feel full. Smart popcorn or old-fashioned popcorn in the microwave or air popper is a great snack.

Also, encourage your child to drink water: It’s an important nutrient and stomach filler. You could also offer milk before a meal to help them feel full.

How can I support my child’s positive body image?

As parents, we might be concerned if our child is overweight. The words we choose when talking about a child’s weight are really, really important. Language can be unintentionally hurtful.

Here in the UVM Children’s Hospital Children's Specialty Center, we’ve noticed that families and caregivers may unintentionally make unhelpful or negative comments when their child gets on the scale, discusses their food choices or when we take their vitals, height, weight and body mass index (BMI).

We shift the conversation away from numbers and instead focus on behaviors. To better understand a child’s habits, we ask:

  • How often are you eating fruits and vegetables?
  • Are you limiting the junky foods?
  • What do your beverages look like?
  • Are you limiting your screen time?

We're really trying to help parents have a more positive attitude toward their child’s weight. If you need to talk to your doctor about your child’s weight and BMI, we suggest you do so when your child is not in the room. Children can be very, very sensitive to language; the words obese or overweight can be a trigger. I try to never to use those terms, but instead focus on balance: encourage balanced nutrition, balanced activities throughout the day and finding the balance between height and weight.

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