Most of us try to avoid the mistakes our parents made when exposing us to food, and we make an effort to teach good eating habits to our grandkids. Children are curious by nature, and our own attitudes toward food choices can influence a child’s eating habits and preferences for life. Here are some simple mealtime approaches you can use to help your grandkids develop a healthy and open-minded relationship with food.
Avoid These Mealtime Mistakes:
1. Keeping children out of the kitchen during meal preparation time.
It is understandable that adults don’t want kids near boiling liquids and sharp knives while meals are being made. But studies show that children who have been given a hand in preparing and cooking meals, whether it’s a snack or dinner, will come to want to try the food they’ve helped to make. Give them small, age-appropriate tasks. Here’s a guide for what they can do, based on age:
Two- and Three-Year-Olds Can
● Wash hands
● Wash fruits and vegetables
● Tear lettuce
● Peel bananas
●Throw trash in waste can
Four- and Five-Year-Olds Can Also
● Open packages and pour into a bowl
● Pour cereal and dry ingredients
● Pour broken eggs from bowl into a mixture
● Stir wet and dry ingredients together
● Knead and shape dough
● Set the table
Six-Year-Olds and Older Can Also
● Measure dry ingredients
● Gather ingredients from cupboards and refrigerator
● Pour liquids (with assistance)
2. Forcing children to clean their plates or take a bite
Let children learn to listen to their own bodies to tell them when they are full. If they say they are not hungry and they become hungry later, let them choose a healthy snack-type vegetable dressed up a bit, such as celery or carrot sticks with flavored yogurt as a dip. As to making them take a bite of a new food, studies show that children react negatively when parents pressure them to eat foods, even if the pressure offers a reward. From my own experience, I have never liked a particular vegetable because I was forced to eat it during a large family holiday dinner when I was 6 years old.
3. Making all decisions about foods the children have available to eat
Take the grandchildren to the grocers and encourage them to choose their own healthy snacks for the week. Use the trip to the store as a fun experience to learn about the different food groups and the “healthy places” in the store. Usually, these places are the perimeter of the store where dairy, meat, fish and produce are displayed. The center aisles generally contain processed foods full of added sugars, salt and fat. After arriving home with the food, give them a special spot in the pantry or refrigerator that they can call their own “snack space.”
4. Using favorite foods as a reward
When a child refuses to eat their vegetables, it is easy to resort to bribery. Children can interpret this as meaning that the broccoli you want them to taste is “bad.” This, in turn, can cause the child to think of the sweet dessert as a prize and more valuable than other foods on their plate. So, allow your grandchildren to make their own decisions. Remember that it can take as much as 10 exposures to a new food for a child to try it. Be patient and be a role model for them. Children learn by imitation. Seeing for themselves that others are eating and enjoying a certain food will go long way in forming healthy food choices.
5. Depriving children of all sweets
Studies have consistently shown that when children are denied cookies or other snack foods, they want them more, and when they do have access, they will increase their consumption of them. Limiting but not completely abolishing sweets is the best approach.
6. Allowing unnecessary liquid calories
Did you know that American children consume 10 to 15 percent of their daily calories from 100 percent fruit juice, sodas, sports drinks and fruit drinks? Most of the “extra” calories from these drinks supply very little in the way of essential nutrients. Your grandkids are unlikely to feel full from drinking lots of soda or juice, and so they won’t eat less when the next meal or snack is offered. The extra calories from these drinks add up, and the result will be weight gain in the long term. Set a good example and don’t drink them yourself!
Remember that as a grandparent, you are one of the primary role models for the children in your family and that your food- and meal-related behaviors have a direct impact on your grandchildren in forming good lifestyle habits.
Links for More Ideas
• Healthy eating for 6- to 11-year-olds from choosemyplate.gov
• Nutrition for teens from fooddomain.msu.edu
Janice Wade-Miller is a nutrition educator in Tallahassee, Florida. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Food and Nutrition from Florida State University. In her role as a health educator, she has assisted all age groups, from young children to the elderly, in learning about good nutrition, health and food safety. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.