5 Ways to Make Healthy Eating a Habit for Kids

One of the most common struggles parents and caregivers face is how to get kids to eat healthy. A healthy diet is crucial for all ages, but especially for children. It affects how their bodies and brains grow, as well as their mood and energy levels.

Keep reading for important information about nutrition for kids and five habits that will help them become healthy eaters for life.

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Nutrition for Kids: What Should They Eat?

All children — from toddlers through the teen years — need the right balance of nutrition to grow and develop. Facing the task of deciding what to feed them multiple times every day for 18 years can feel overwhelming. Things get more complicated when children go through periods of picky eating.

Your child’s eating experiences when they’re young establish a solid foundation as they grow. By their first birthday, children should begin eating many of the same healthy foods as adults.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate meal-planning method is an easy way to ensure your child gets the proper nutrients. Divide their plate or bowl into four sections. At every meal, fill their plate with this guide:

  • One-half of the plate should be fruits and vegetables. Fresh, frozen, or canned produce without added salt or sugar and packed with fiber and nutrients is a great choice. Vary the colors and textures to ensure they get a range of vitamins and minerals.
  • One-quarter of the plate should be a high-protein food. Good choices include fish, poultry, meat, eggs, beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, and seeds. In addition to protein, these foods provide B vitamins, iron and other minerals, and healthy fats.
  • The final quarter of the plate should be whole grains. These provide long-lasting energy from complex carbohydrates. Try oatmeal or whole-grain cereal for breakfast, whole-wheat bread or pasta for lunch, and brown rice for dinner.
  • Add in one serving of milk, yogurt, or cheese. These foods are rich in protein plus calcium for strong bones. If your child doesn’t eat dairy, substitute a fortified plant-based alternative.

Children also need two or three snacks between meals. Offer healthy snacks made with whole-food ingredients from multiple food groups. Good options include:

  • An apple spread with almond butter.
  • Carrot sticks, hummus, and whole grain crackers.
  • Greek yogurt with fruit and granola.
  • A strawberry and spinach smoothie made with a scoop of Greek yogurt.

Together, these foods provide the nutrients children need and set the foundation for a healthy diet.

How to Get Kids to Eat Healthy

Offering the right foods is the first step in getting kids to eat healthy. It’s up to them to decide which foods to eat, but implementing these five habits can make it easier.

Establish regular meal and snack times

Eating meals at mealtime with snacks as needed helps maintain children’s energy levels throughout the day. Their brains and bodies work better when parents serve a balanced breakfast, pack a healthy lunch, and provide a nourishing after-school snack and dinner.

Planned meals and snacks also prevent mindless grazing and turning to sweets or junk food when hunger calls throughout the day. It teaches kids to acknowledge and respond to their hunger in a healthy way.

Aim to eat dinner or at least one daily meal together as a family as often as possible. Kids who eat meals with their families are more likely to have healthier eating patterns during childhood and as young adults. Family meals also offer significant emotional, social, academic, and physical benefits.

Make healthy food accessible

Kids (and adults) are more likely to eat healthy foods if they’re easy to access and ready to eat.

  • Keep a bowl of fresh fruit on the kitchen counter so it’s the first thing they see.
  • Keep single-serve containers of Greek yogurt in the refrigerator.
  • Stock the pantry with healthy snacks, like crackers, rice cakes, popcorn, dried fruit, nuts, and nut butter.
  • Wash, peel, and cut fresh vegetables or fruits like berries and melons. Keep them in clear containers in the refrigerator where they can easily see them.

Having these options within reach takes the guesswork out of snack time.

Stick with water

Sweetened beverages are one of the top sources of sugar (and empty calories) in children’s diets. Drinking them increases your child’s risk of becoming overweight and obese, which can lead to these and other health problems:

  • Diabetes or prediabetes.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome in teen girls.

Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is a hard habit to break as kids get older and become adults. Keep soda, fruit drinks, and other sugary beverages out of the house as much as possible. Let children quench their thirst with water instead.

Get your kids in the kitchen

Eating healthy begins with learning about food, where it comes from, and how to prepare it. Kids who help plan or prepare meals are more open to trying and appreciating healthy foods.

Let your kids participate in age-appropriate meal planning and prep activities:

  • Ask for their help planning and packing lunches.
  • Ask what healthy meal they’d like to eat for dinner.
  • Let them choose one or two new fruits or vegetables at the grocery store or try a new recipe.
  • Let them participate in measuring, chopping, stirring, or cooking their favorite meals.

Planning and preparing healthy meals is one of the most essential life skills you can teach your child. It’s one they’ll use forever to create healthy foods for themselves and their own family.

Be a good role model

Children develop good or bad habits by modeling themselves on the adults and family members around them. Seeing parents or caregivers taking the time to plan, prepare, and eat healthy foods will inspire kids to do the same.

Be a good role model for your child by living a healthy lifestyle yourself. That includes eating healthy, having a positive relationship with food, staying physically active, and limiting screen time. These small steps add up and will become part of your child’s lifestyle.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. What is MyPlate? LINK

The Family Dinner Project. Benefits of Family Dinners. LINK

Nutrients. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Metabolic Risk in Children and Adolescents with Obesity: A Narrative Review. LINK

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.