March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Much of life revolves around eating, so you want to be sure that your child is equipped to make healthy choices when you're not right there. The older a child gets, the more meals and snacks take place outside the home — from school to sleepovers to parties. As kids grow up and gain more independence, outings with friends often include eating in restaurants. Peer pressure, a social reality that affects many areas of life, can easily influence a child's food preferences and selections in each of these situations.
It Starts At Home
Habits formed at home will follow your child out the door. While studies have shown that peer influences are associated with kids' eating patterns, it is known that behaviors modeled by family members are a powerful force as well. A review article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition notes that parents have the opportunity to model positive or negative eating habits, and that this can impact children's choices in any setting. Finding a healthy balance at home is important."Partner with your child by understanding your child's food preferences, encouraging them to participate in food selection and preparation, and setting realistic guidelines on food intake per age," says Nancy Farrell, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Remember it's OK to be a 'B' student with food intake. Perfection shouldn't be the rule, as that can backfire and create distorted body image issues leading to disordered eating."
Healthy Choices at Restaurants
Extravagant portion sizes present a challenge for health-minded kids who are eating out with their friends. "It's easy to think that the portions of food we are served are what we should be consuming, so we eat everything that comes on our plate, in our cup or brought to the table," says Farrell. "Social events can also trigger an increased appetite. Take the time at home to teach kids about true hunger levels and appropriate child or teen portion sizes so they will be better able to handle portion sizes on their own."
Help children and teens practice mindful eating by encouraging them to eat at a slower pace and heed the internal cues that the body sends to let them know they are full. Tell them that cleaning their plate is not always necessary. Help them pick healthy options when you go out as a family.
Confidence Under Scrutiny
Friends and even family members may pose awkward questions — such as, "Are you on a diet?" — when kids make different food choices than their peers, or they may tease them for things including drinking water instead of soda at social gatherings. Kids with a strong sense of self-esteem will be more confident in their actions. Encourage them to open up to you regarding their feelings about conversations they've had regarding choices that have gone against the norm. Praise them for good decisions. Suggest that they explain that they do eat "sometimes" foods, but that they also want to make healthy choices as often as possible.
So Many Options!
School, visits with friends and "special occasions" are ever-present opportunities for kids to practice balanced eating. When there is an array of options, teach them that they can take a "sometimes" food along with a few healthier foods. Get together with other parents of children from school and talk about ways you can promote healthy eating in the group as a whole.
Anticipating the kinds of pressures your child will face and preparing for them will give you confidence that he or she is going to do well when you're not present. Congratulations on setting the stage for a lifetime of healthy eating habits!