Most of us probably look back on our eating habits as children and wonder what we were thinking. As a child, you’re not counting calories … and everything fits your macros! What’s a vegetable? Dinner? Why have dinner when you can skip straight to dessert? These are all common questions that run through a kid’s mind.

While we all deserve the right to indulge occasionally (adults included), healthy eating should be the rule and not the exception. You want your kids to eat healthy and get all the nutrients they need so that they minimize the risk of developmental issues. You can’t expect them to make the right choices on their own, however, at least not while they’re being bombarded with sugary snacks on television ads, the grocery store, vending machines, and school lunches. This is where parenting comes in – make sure to educate your children so that they can make the right choices. Let’s talk about how to get your kids on the right track.

Knowledge Is Power

The first step to developing healthy eating habits is to educate your children about smart nutrition in general. You can’t expect them to log every single calorie at this stage in the game, but they should know the difference between a carbohydrate and a protein. They should also be able to read labels and know to stay away from as many simple sugars as possible.

Learning is a process – it happens over time. Don’t expect to drill them on their diet for hours at a time and have them retain all of the information. Give them bite-sized amounts of nutritional coaching frequently. Monitor their eating habits and look for opportunities to coach them. Also, remember that the path to a great diet is not a linear one. They will have setbacks, temptations, and moments where it’s acceptable to splurge – they are children, after all.

Here are a few points to drill home:

  • Avoid high-sugar items like fruit drinks, cookies, desserts, sodas, fruit snacks, etc. Despite what the CMOs of these large corporations may tell you, their sugar-laden products aren’t healthy for anyone – children included.
  • Fruits and vegetables contain plenty of vitamins and minerals – although you want to steer them toward more vegetables. Vegetables have a lower sugar content and more micronutrients. But if they’re in the mood for something sweet, it’s better to reach for a banana or some watermelon than a candy bar.
  • Protein is essential for rebuilding their muscles after intense sports. The more active they are, the more protein they will need, along with complex carbohydrates and healthy fats.
  • Keeping kids hydrated is important, regardless of physical activity. Have them drink water, seltzer water, on unsweetened decaffeinated teas. Avoid sugary drinks like soda and sports drinks. If they need a quick pick-me-up while training, pack some trail mix for them. The amount of sugars found in fruit juices and sports drinks far outweigh their nutritional benefit – don’t believe the marketing hype.

Make Healthy Foods Available to Them

As humans, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. Nutritionally speaking, this means that your children are going to reach for whatever is nearest to them when they’re hungry. Make sure to stock your refrigerator and your pantry with healthy foods that are low in sugar and packed with micronutrients. If they don’t have sugar-laden and fatty snacks available to them, they can’t eat them (when they’re at home, at least)! This is perfect because, if they eat 75% of their meals from home and stay active each day, they can ward off issues like obesity and diabetes.

Positive Reinforcement

As the old saying goes, “You catch a lot more flies with honey than vinegar.” Some children are more agreeable than others, but, if your children are going through a rebellious phase, good luck threatening them with punishments for not eating healthfully. We shouldn’t force them into healthy eating, but shaping them with positive reinforcement is the way to go. When your children are smaller, the idea of growing big and strong is very enticing. Use that to your advantage! Remind them that nutritious foods will help them look and feel good.

Get Them Involved in Sports

You can take the indirect approach by getting them involved in sports. The more engrossed they become in the sport, the more they will want to improve their abilities. Boxing training is a great example of a demanding sport that requires plenty of time, discipline, and good nutrition. Physical training aside, your children will be more willing to develop healthy eating habits if you remind them that their efforts will pay off with greater performance in the gym. Constantly reinforce to them that what they put in is what they get out of it.

Reward Them

Who doesn’t like to be recognized for a job well-done? Rewarding your kids for sticking to their nutritional guidelines is a great way to recognize their efforts and motivate them to stay on track. We will be very specific here, in regards to the reward, however. Make sure to reward them with something that they like that has nothing to do with food. It’s best to keep food and emotion as separate as possible to prevent emotional eating in the future. According to the CDC, about 40% of adults in the U.S. are obese as of the year 2016. More interesting, however, is the fact that studies show that about 57% of obese adults admit that they are emotional eaters. Don’t teach your children that food is a reward, as it can lead them down the wrong path. Instead, reward them with activities that they like. Take them out to fun zones, etc.

In closing, remember that they are children, after all. Don’t expect perfection. Praise them when they make the right choices, and coach them when they make the wrong choices. Let them enjoy some of the junk foods that their friends are enjoying, at times, but make sure that they are sticking to nutritious foods for the majority of the time. Thanks for reading!