How to Foster a Healthy Food Relationship for Kids

two lunch bento boxes filled with healthy fruits, veggies and more
Photo: Callie Exas & Brett Klein

A healthy food relationship means being able to take pleasure in food while also listening to the body’s cues as to what it needs and when. As children, we have a very strong innate ability to listen to our body’s cues relative to food intake. As we grow older, this relationship can get convoluted due to outside influences.

As parents, we know it’s important to foster kids’ relationships with food while also respecting them as individuals and trusting them to make their own decisions about their food. For more guidance on the “division of responsibility” for feeding, visit The Ellyn Satter Institute. In a nutshell, the philosophy is that healthy eating habits involve dividing responsibilities between parent and child. While parents take care of “what and when” to eat, children are given the freedom to decide “if and how much” to eat.

Here are a few of our basic tips for helping children build healthy relationships around food and nutrition.

Set a Routine

We know kids thrive on a schedule — we’ve got nap schedule, play schedule, etc. Giving kids structure around consistent mealtime and sitting to eat meals together allows everyone time to bond and relax without distractions. It’s also a time to set an example of what healthy eating habits look like. Setting an eating schedule without the distraction of the TV on or cellphones out can help with this. It discourages snacking and helps everyone recognize their own hunger cues so that they eat the right amount of food at a given time.

Throw Out the Clean Plate Club

We know it’s important that kids eat enough, but it’s also important that we allow children to listen to their own body’s internal hunger cues and respect them. By forcing children to clean their plates, we dampen their intuitive body signals.

So we can’t force or bribe them to eat, but we can guide them to eat better at meal time and set boundaries. One helpful guideline we love is to allow kids to serve themselves while also encouraging that we taste a bit of everything. If they don’t like it, that’s fine. No harm, no foul. By self-serving, we empower kids to make decisions for themselves, thus they’ll be more likely to eat what’s on their plate. If they refuse, try not to hit the roof (easier said than done sometimes, we know). It’s a journey, not a destination, but patience is key! By all means, channel your “Little Engine That Could” and keep putting those foods in rotation. It doesn’t have to be a lot — just a taste goes a long way for picky eaters.

Another quick tip is not following dinner with dessert EVERY SINGLE night so that kids know to fill up at dinner time. This helps keep them from expecting food after dinner and skipping to dessert. It also helps parents avoid bribery with dinner food. “If you eat one piece of broccoli, you can have a piece of candy.” Sound familiar?

Be a Positive Role Model

This one is tough because it involves getting over our own food insecurities. The goal is to avoid categorizing foods as good or bad. It’s important to set a good example around food and our own bodies. If you are constantly on a diet or counting your macros or talking poorly about your body, your kid will absorb that language and behavior — cuing the restriction or using food as an emotional filler. Now is the perfect time to turn over a new leaf and start a positive relationship with food and your own body!

That being said, treats are important, too, and always have a time and place. Which brings us to our next tip …

Have Fun & Enjoy Food

Kids will develop healthy food relationships if they can have fun with food and learn about it. Take your kids to the farm. Let them pick their own fruits and veggies. Teach them about where their food comes from. Help them explore by growing your own herbs on the window sill and then picking a dish you can cook them with. Let them have their treats in moderation. If you’re having fun with your kids and it involves food, it’s always a positive.

This is Not About Perfection

Bottom Line: Is their diet going to be perfectly nutritious and balanced all the time? No. That’s not the point, either. Allowing kids to have their treats and their veggies creates balance and a better sense of what to eat and when.  The main idea is to ensure that they’re learning how to eat a colorful and varied diet that includes time for ice cream and pizza, too.

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Callie Exas and Brett Klein
Callie Exas, MPH, MS, RDN, and Brett Klein, MSc, RD, CDN, are clinical dietitians based in Brooklyn, NY, and founders of The Wellthy Plate. You can learn more about them at www.TheWellthyPlate.com. Follow them on Instagram and Facebook.