Moms are responsible for countless matters, from ensuring their children’s homework is done on time to encouraging them to always apply manners and kindness.
But what should top the list? Serving as an excellent role model—inside and outside of the kitchen.
Why? Science demonstrates that a mom’s diet—as well as her activity levels—has a direct impact on her child’s health, weight and relationship with food, both now and long into the future.
Research out of Michigan State University, which was published in Public Health Nursing, found that children were less likely to eat fruits and vegetables—the cornerstones of a healthy diet—if their mothers didn’t. Additional research published in The Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics demonstrates that “parental modeling” plays a significant role in a child’s eating habits and food preferences.
“The first five years of life are a time of rapid physical growth and change, and are the years when eating behaviors can serve as a foundation for future eating patterns to develop,” the study’s authors report. “During these early years, children are learning what, when, and how much to eat based on the transmission of cultural and familial beliefs, attitudes, and practices surrounding food and eating.”
In other words? The healthier you are, the healthier your child will likely be.
With this in mind, and in honor of Mother’s Day, here are 10 savvy ways to promote healthy eating—for both you and your child.
10 Healthy Kids Eating Tips
1. Prioritize breakfast
True, some research shows that skipping breakfast can actually have benefits, from potentially reducing overall caloric intake to preventing stomach upset.
And yet, consider this a decision one must make in adulthood, as growing children need breakfast—not only to power their mornings but also for proper growth and brain development.
Prepare or present wholesome breakfasts for both you and your children, such as Greek yogurt with cognitive-boosting blueberries or eggs scrambled with veggies. At the same time, you’ll be reaping the benefits of getting in key nutrients—and preventing late-morning craving.
2. …and eating together
Research shows that families who eat together thrive together.
In fact, a study published in JAMA revealed that family meals are linked to improved eating, period—particularly among teenagers.
What’s more, a review published by the NIH and performed by Canadian researchers discovered that family meals decreased the risk for psychological conditions, such as substance misuse and depression.
While there will certainly be days when it’ll be difficult to prioritize eating together, set a dinner time, and make sure neither phones nor television plays a part during your meal. Not only will this spur a stronger connection with your children, but it’ll also help everyone involved keep an eye on portion control.
3. Up your activity level
Children are sponges of their parents’ behavior; teenagers, too, even if they would argue with you on this point.
If they see you walking, working out, bicycling, or, say, practicing yoga, the more likely they will be to engage in physical activity.
One idea: Spend a half-hour before or after dinner doing some sort of activity, whether that’s playing hoops together as a family, going for a walk, or even doing chores.
4. Refrain from body-based comments
Praising a child for their thinness or muscle tone may seem completely natural…but it also sets the stage for expectations. Similarly, criticizing your child for, say, gaining weight may lead to a host of issues.
As children grow and change, their bodies do too, and emphasizing physical features may create an unhealthy relationship with their body and eating behaviors. Rather, note and reward other traits, from your daughter’s volunteering efforts to your son’s integrity.
5. Offer autonomy
Giving your children the ability to choose what they would like to eat—within a healthy range—encourages independence and, with the right guidance, healthy choices.
Never admonish your child for wanting something “unhealthy,” such as pizza, but encourage tweaks that will increase its nutritional value, such as adding extra vegetables.
6. Turn meal-planning into a family endeavor
Take this lesson on autonomy a step further and ask your children to be a part of meal planning.
This can be as casual as allowing your child to decide on a protein, vegetable, and complex carb—and, if they’re old enough, involving them in the process of preparing it—to sitting down once a week and penciling in what your upcoming meals will be.
If you have multiple children, perhaps give each child a “night” in which the family will be eating their choice, whether it’s your son’s favorite vegetable-rich lasagna or your daughter’s most beloved soup.
7. Keep your refrigerator and pantry stocked with wholesome foods
Keep potato chips, candy, and brownies around and chances are that’s precisely what your children will reach for when they’re hungry.
But keep pre-cut vegetables and hummus, apples, and nuts around? That’s another story.
Storing nutritional food in your home—and within view—will naturally inspire your child to eat them. This will be especially true if they see you eating them too.
8. Allow for extravagances
Life cannot be all about carrots and free-range chicken. Birthdays, holidays, even Sunday Fundays can and should be about eating foods that give you and your children pleasure.
Reserving rich desserts and “cheat eats” like cheeseburgers for special occasions will instill an important lesson in your child: That no food should necessarily be verboten, but eaten rarely—and relished in moderation.
9. Encourage exotic flavors and experimentation
Evidence shows that introducing your child to a wide range of flavors and textures from an early age lessens the chance that they will become picky eaters.
Browse the produce aisle and let your child choose fruits and vegetables that visually intrigue them, such as starfruit, dragon fruit, and radishes. Weave health-boosting spices, such as curry, into your meals. Choose a restaurant that serves something you wouldn’t likely prepare at home and encourage your child to try something wildly different.
Bottom line: The more (healthy) foods your children are exposed to, the more apt they will be to enjoy a diverse, nutrient-packed diet throughout life.
10. Keep communication open
Food is fuel—and medicine.
And yet, it can also be fraught with emotion, especially for adolescents once they hit puberty.
Make it clear to your children that nothing is off the table, so to speak, whether it’s their alarm at seeing their bodies change or the way certain foods make them feel. This will provide them with a wholly different type of fuel—to voice their concerns, be vulnerable, and move through life in a proactive, healthful way.