By: Sufia Malik
The eating habits a child is exposed to in the first five years of their lives shapes their future health outcomes . Encouraging your child to eat a balanced diet may not be the easiest task. In fact, picky eating in children is very normal. It’s how you respond to the way your children eat can make all the difference between them transitioning out of fussy eating or continuing it into later years.
Children adopt the eating habits and attitudes towards food from their families and environment. So, giving some thought to the way you approach feeding your children really can make all the difference. Exposure to a wide range of foods to your child's diet, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and dairy products is crucial for their long-term health and prevent food aversions .
Here are some tips to help encourage healthy eating habits in children:
Be a Role Model
Children often mimic the behaviours of adults, so it's very important to model healthy eating habits yourself. If you show them that you enjoy eating fruits and vegetables, chances are they will also be more willing to try these foods. Another way to be a good role model is by not overeating and to have meals of appropriate portion sizes. Show them how you stop eating once you feel full and you could say, "This is delicious, but I'm full, so I'm going to stop eating." This fosters the good habit of listening to their hunger cues and eating mindfully.
Make Healthy Food Fun
If your children enjoy being at the table they are far more likely to eat a meal and not want to leave the table after a few mouthfuls. You can get creative with presentations - use cookie cutters for fruits and vegetables, or arrange the food into a smiley face on the plate. The more engaging and appealing the food looks, the more likely children are to try it.
You could also experiment with condiments and dips like yoghurt, hummus or salsa to entice your children to eat vegetables. Another fun hack is to introduce vegetables and fruits to your kids by using imaginative names like, ‘tiny trees’ for broccoli, ‘bazooka bananas’ or ‘celery swords’.
Don't Use Food as a Reward or Punishment
“If you eat this broccoli, you will get to have ice cream for dessert”. Sounds familiar? Bribery at mealtimes is commonplace, and while it may work in the short term, your child’s fussy eating may be exacerbated in the long run.
Telling your child that they have to eat a certain food to 'earn' eating their favourite reinforces their belief that one food (broccoli) is bad and their favourite (ice cream) is good. Over time, this will lead to them wanting to eat broccoli even less and ice cream even more! So what should you do instead?
Remove the pressure to eat foods: your child should decide how much they eat of a meal. Think about the diet as a whole across a week or so, not just one meal because balance should be achieved in this way rather than at every single meal.
Avoid using dessert as the prize for eating the meal. You can still have these kinds of foods on offer regularly in small portions to help your child normalise them. By using food as a reward or withholding it as a punishment can create an unhealthy emotional relationship with food.⠀⠀⠀
Involve Them in Meal Preparation⠀
Get your children involved in meal planning and preparation. You can let them choose healthy ingredients at the grocery store or help with age-appropriate tasks in the kitchen. This can make them feel more invested in the meal and more likely to eat the food they prepared.
Set Regular Meal and Snack Times
Having a consistent schedule for meals and snack time for your child can prevent excessive snacking and promote a healthier diet. Incorporate healthy snacks every three to four hours, such as hard-boiled eggs with whole wheat crackers or oatmeal with pear and prunes, as these provide a good source of protein and fibre, helping them stay full for a longer period.
Limit Foods & Beverages High In Sugars
The Students' Health Survey conducted by HPB from 2008 to 2009 revealed that 28 percent of parents and caregivers offered sugary beverages to their children aged four to nine more than once a week . Teaching kids to moderate their intake of sweetened drinks lays the groundwork for lifelong healthy eating habits, equipping them with the skills to make better dietary decisions when they grow older.
Kids, especially younger ones, will eat mostly what's available at home and that's why it's important to control the supply lines. At the same time, don't completely ban sweet treats from your home. You could instead, make them "once-in-a-while" foods, so kids don't feel deprived. You can still have sweet treats as occasional treats rather than daily staples.
It may take time for children to develop healthy eating habits, and there will likely be some resistance along the way. Be patient, stay positive, and create a supportive environment for your child to explore and enjoy nutritious foods.
Above all else, realise that what your kids eat over the long run is what really matters. Having popcorn at the movies or eating an ice-cream sundae are some of life's real pleasures. As long as you balance these times with nutritious food choices and physical activity, your children will be fine.
 Determining Factors and Critical Periods in the Formation of Eating Habits: Results from the Habeat Project. (2017). Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. Available at: https://karger.com/anm/article/70/3/251/49212/Determining-Factors-and-Critical-Periods-in-the
 Role of Childhood Food Patterns on Adult Cardiovascular Disease Risk. (2014). Nutrition. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11883-014-0443-z
 Health Promotion Board. (2009). Students' Health Survey. [Online] Available at: https://www.hpb.gov.sg/docs/default-source/annual-reports/hpb-annual-report-2009.pdf?sfvrsn=49c3ec72_2