Helping Your Child Or Teenager To Eat Healthier

Is there something you can do to encourage your children and/or teenagers to eat healthier?

This really is the million-dollar question for many parents, isn’t it?

I personally hear queries like this from friends, family and clients alike ALL THE TIME.

I’m sure you have too, or you may even be one of the ones offering forth such queries.

Common sense and some research would suggest setting a good example and making healthy foods available at home are good starting points, but many parents reading this will know that sometimes those steps just aren’t enough.

Sound familiar? This post is for all the parents out there.

Today’s article will explore how parental strategies influence food choices in children and adolescents with the goal of offering takeaways for parents to help improve how they interact with kids on the food frontier.

The implications for utilizing sound practices in this regard go well beyond just nutritional health, as well meaning strategies that are carried out poorly could do a great deal of harm to a child or teen’s relationship with food and/or body image.

So What Can You Do?

First and foremost, my impression of the current science is that there is no one true fail-safe strategy to ensure your kids will eat the way you hope them to, or even more healthfully than they are now.

Certainly parents who have some level of nutritional knowledge, whether self-acquired or gained through interactions with a professional (such as myself or another dietitian) will be in a better position in this regard.

But knowledge can be deceiving in the online age, with all sorts of questionable information on the internet it can be very challenging for parents who may not otherwise be savvy to build a strong base of expertise in the absence of some level of professional guidance.

So what are we waiting for, let’s get to the good stuff.

Positively Influencing Children’s Eating Behaviours

This section is based off of a 2018 paper I encountered out of the Nutrients journal that explores some of the strategies that are generally associated with more positive food behaviours in children.

They include:

  • Purchasing mostly healthy foods at home
  • Avoiding the use food-based rewards
  • Setting the example, both with how you try new foods and how you enjoy food
  • Encouraging trying new foods
  • Avoid displaying explicit dislike of foods
  • Repeated exposure to the same foods
  • Allowing child input into meal planning
  • Focusing on healthy portable snack foods
  • High frequency of shared meals when possible ( family breakfasts, dinners etc)
  • Socializing at dinner, no tv, phones and so on.
  • Parental education and empowerment ( ie: reading this blog, talking to a professional)

A 2008 quote from the Journal Of Law, Medicine & Ethics sums these findings up nicely:

“[I]f we want children to learn to like and eat healthy foods such as vegetables, they need early, positive, and repeated experiences with those foods, as well as opportunities to observe others consuming those foods.”

Moving On To Adolescents

For those with teenagers, or if you’ve ever been one, you will know that they are a whole different ballgame.

Adolescents will obviously benefit on some level from the interactions with food they experience as children and although they are certainly more free roaming, they still consume more than half of their calories at home.

Beyond setting a good example and making healthy food available, it appears that also setting the expectation of healthy eating habits ( ie: eating your vegetables) in the household also helps.

Before we get ahead of ourselves though, let’s take a look at this salient quote from a 2016 PNAS journal publication:

“Behavioral science has rarely offered effective strategies for changing adolescent health behavior.”

What a surprise that even scientists do not know what to do with teenagers – not!

In all fairness, the adolescent years are perhaps the most volatile in a person’s life, and there does not appear to be a silver bullet solution on the table.

The evidence is certainly mixed.

On the one hand, a 2016 journal article from BMC Public Health found that unhealthy eating habits among adolescents ( ie: not eating their fruits & veggies) was more likely to occur in  homes where parents that did not offer up some form of food rules ( ie: no TV at dinner etc).

Yet studies also show that, unsurprisingly, adolescents value autonomy in their decision making – including as it relates to food.

This should not shock any parents of teenagers out there.

Reconciling the desire to set some parameters on household eating with an adolescent’s desire for autonomy and to make choices in line with their own values is the ultimate challenge for any parent.

Here are some general suggestions based on a pretty robust 2015 review paper out of the Nutrients Journal:

  • Keep the availability of healthful foods high.
  • Match the level of control you exert over food choices at home with the level of warmth with which you exert it.
  • Focus on controlling what is made available and accessible and less so on what and how much your child chooses to eat.
  •  Lead by example and be as encouraging as possible .
  • Convey expectations and standards as it relates to food in the home without being overly intrusive or restrictive .
  • Focus on eating , shopping for and preparing food together  as often as possible.
  • Accept that as adolescents age their peers may impact their food choices as much as you do and avoid trying to exert too much control ( especially psychological) over food intake.
  • As with children, avoid using food as a reward.
  • Use “should” rather than “must” language to convey authority without threatening autonomy.
  • Do not overemphasize healthy eating as it relates to long-term health outcomes, because most teenagers simply don’t care.
  • Be as involved with food as you are with anything else in their lives, no less and no more – as is reasonable.

Take Home Message: Parenting is tough, but I hope you found some useful points within today’s article.

Best of luck.

Until next time,

Andy De Santis RD MPH