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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your 4-year-old child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship from the start, and developing healthy eating habits is a great way to do it.
Healthy eating habits begin in the early years and include developing family eating routines, giving your child choices about what and how much to eat, and modeling healthy options. Eating offers a time to learn about nutrition and about socializing with others, making independent choices, sharing portions with others, impulse control, and contributing to the food preparation needed for a family meal.
Family preferences and habits are deeply influenced by culture and allow for children to learn an essential part of their identity. When a child learns about their family’s eating habits and how they are different and similar to other families, they learn what makes their family culture unique and special. Eating together is an important part of childhood and can be a time for family bonding and for making healthy eating a way of life.1
Despite cultural differences in the use of utensils, spices, ingredients, and rituals, there are common guidelines for healthy portions and food choices that are helpful for all families. Although it may be frustrating when your child does not always choose the foods or the portion sizes that are the most healthy,2 it is important to be flexible and patient. Being too rigid about eating rules will lead to power struggles and will often end up with you feeling that you need to resort to rewarding or punishing your child for what they do or do not eat.
In fact sometimes parents end up using food as a reward (“If you eat three more bites, I will let you have a cookie”) or a punishment (“Because you did not eat a healthy breakfast, now you have to eat broccoli for lunch”). This can damage your relationship with your child, add to your daily stress, and result in your child not liking healthy foods. Rather than developing healthy eating habits, your child will just be complying with your rules and are likely to try to defy these rules when you are not watching.
Throughout the early years, children’s experiences with food will change as they are able to eat a wider range of foods and experiment with independence and exploration. Your child might find certain foods that they like a lot and others that they are unwilling to try. Being able to control what they eat is part of their attempt to assert independence. Involving children in grocery shopping, vegetable growing, and food preparation increases the chances they will try a variety of foods.
Three-to-four-year-olds will be able to handle some new foods on their own, such as an aunt offering them eggplant lasagna. Others will feel more challenged and will look to a family member or trusted adult to help them speak up for themselves and say, “I tried it but it was not my favorite.” Although the circumstances are changing as your child grows up, the need to know that a trusted adult is there for them and offering structure with independence will promote healthy eating habits at all ages.
We all face challenges sticking to healthy eating habits. As your child is developing though, it is important that they can turn to you to offer suggestions for new foods to try, to be patient as they experiment with new foods, and to welcome them unconditionally to the family dinner table. The steps below include specific and practical strategies to help you talk about healthy eating habits and build a relationship with your child that includes reliable and unconditional support and love.
Your child’s openness to try new foods and engage with others around the meal table are essential to developing lifelong healthy eating habits. You can begin by exposing your child to new foods that are just the right level of challenge for them, offer just enough support and patience for them to know they can trust you, and help them recognize and feel a sense of success and empowerment when they master the experience.
Today, in the short term, healthy eating habits can create
- opportunities for your child to have new experiences;
- a sense of pride and belonging in the cultural food traditions that are important to your family;
- a sense of confidence that your child can manage a certain level of difficulty; and
- a strong connection between the two of you as you navigate these challenges together and triumph in successes.
Tomorrow, in the long term, helping your child develop healthy eating habits
- develops a strong foundation for lifelong health and well-being;
- provides a firm foundation for exploration, an openness to new experiences;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family connection.
This five-step process helps you and your child to grow healthy eating habits together. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Three-to-four-year-olds may use sentences limited to five to six words and may still cry as a form of communicating with you. Paying close attention to your child’s facial expressions, body movements, and words helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking.
Understanding what your child is thinking and feeling will make a big difference for setting the stage for healthy eating habits. Your child will give you lots of cues about whether a change or an addition to their eating routine feels too big or too small for them. Every child is different and your own child may change from day-to-day in how willing they are to take on new foods and habits. The more they can be part of contributing to the family eating routines (e.g., shopping, growing, preparing, planning), the more they will be excited about meals together.
You are the person that will know your child’s cues better than anyone else, and you will be able to anticipate if eating something new and being flexible with expectations is right for today. Is your child feeling particularly tired? Did they just get hurt or are they hungry? Knowing how they are doing and what their facial expressions and body language mean will help you decide if a challenge is the right size for your child, right now.
In paying attention and noting small differences in your child’s cries, body language, and speaking when trying to be healthy, you
- show them that they can trust you to notice how they feel;
- let them know that you will help them to face challenges;
- will help them to advocate for themselves if something feels like too much for right now or if they need more support;
- tell them that they can trust you to help them gain a sense of which experiences are right for risk-taking and which ones are not; and
- deepen your ability to communicate with one another.
- Help your child notice and name their own cues so they can develop self-awareness and learn to trust their own feelings. This includes describing and naming the pride they may feel when they have tried something new. Pointing out the healthy eating habits that they demonstrate will help them notice their successes and know they are capable when the next challenge arises.
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “What do you notice? How do you feel? How do you think the other child feels? What are you wondering?”
- For example, if your child is with others who don’t like a food that your child likes – help your child notice their own thoughts and reactions, and those of the other children. You might even name what expressions and body language you notice: “I see the other children are staring at the seaweed chips that you brought today. Some of them are plugging their noses. I wonder if this is a food they have never seen before.”
- You can also point out that you remember when your child had a similar reaction to a new food but now they like it. “Do you remember the first time that you tried the seaweed chips? You were hesitant and thought you might not like them. Maybe your friends will get more comfortable with your seaweed chips in the future.”
- When reading books, choose books that show families eating a wide range of foods and point out when they have healthy eating habits. Ask, “I noticed she had ice cream with her family at the end of the story. That looked yummy. I wonder if she will have healthier foods for dinner? What do you think?”
- If your child is feeling unsure about how to describe all of the feelings that occur when trying to develop healthy habits, or how others are feeling, consider asking questions, naming what you notice, and leaving plenty of quiet space after your questions so they have an opportunity to share their ideas too.
- “How did you feel when you first saw the new food? I noticed some children were very excited to try something new.”
- “I noticed other children took more time to get comfortable. Was there anything that made you feel nervous?”
- “How do you feel right now?”
- “How do you think you will feel next time we try it?”
- “Is there anything we can do to remember how good it felt to try something new today?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding a child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build your child’s eating habits. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through.3
- 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
- 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
- 3-4-year-olds can carry on a conversation offering two to three sentences but do not yet have a feelings vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes longer to develop.
- 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- 3-4-year-olds can create exclusivity by focusing on one and ignoring others. With the help of adults, they can learn to be more inclusive.
- 3-4-year-olds are beginning to notice differences including culture and race, making it a critical time to discuss inclusion and the essential nature of different perspectives in order to learn.
- 3-4-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- 3-4-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Read and “pretend play together.” Use old food containers or pretend foods to play “restaurant” or “dinner time” with your child. Use a take out menu from a local restaurant with a different ethnic cuisine than you usually eat. Then you can practice saying the names of the foods, being interested in them, and planning to take a “bite” and being curious about how it will taste.
- Share your thoughts and feelings. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving even when- and particularly when- it’s not comfortable. “Our neighbor was so nice to bring over some dinner to share with us.I have not tried those foods before, and I was nervous. That was really hard for me.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “That is my favorite new food, and I was so surprised that Uncle Kenny was not willing to try it. That made me sad.”
- Grow curiosity. In addition to growing these essential skills that lead your child to build healthy eating habits, there are beliefs and attitudes that you can promote to help them too. For example, when your child uses definitive language like, “I will never eat this,” you can respond, “It sounds like that was not your favorite today. Maybe you will like it when you try it again in the future.”
Don’t tell your child what they feel; ask instead. Three-and-four-year-olds are striving for independence and may create a power struggle if you are too direct about their thoughts and feelings. You might say, “You look angry. Is that right?”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themselves.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s sense that they can try something new successfully. This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
To build healthy eating habits, it is important to practice noticing emotions, giving your child a choice to try something new when they are ready, noticing the trusted adults that are always there to help, and remembering that the child’s strengths and pride in their own culture’s eating traditions can help them embrace family eating routines.
- It is ok to eat certain foods more often than others. Provide many opportunities for your child to be exposed to new foods and share in eating routines with family members. Even if it means mixing a small amount of the new food into another food that they already like or covering the new food in honey or cheese. It will help them take one step closer to expanding their range of healthy foods. This will help them feel successful and develop an identity as someone who tries new foods.
- Provide books, dolls, menus, food magazine cut-outs, and pretend food at home to give your child many chances to see new foods and new ways of eating.
- Use your child’s dolls or stuffed animals to act out moments of new habit building. This is a good way to practice facing really big challenges that the child might be experiencing or about to experience, such as a trip to a new restaurant or a family event. You could say, “Let’s cook new food for your doll. Would your doll like some trout? How does the doll feel about trying it? Maybe your doll can try just a little bit and also have something else that they are more comfortable with.”
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve shown your child that you can be trusted to be there when they need you. Your child is learning to notice when they feel worry, fear, or stress when encountering a new eating situation. Together, you brainstorm ways to get through a challenge and recognize the pride and success of having healthy eating habits.
Now, you can offer support when it is needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. This support also tells the child that you see the challenge they are facing and you are here to support them. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed that you put a little bit of the peppers on your plate and tried a few bites. I love seeing that.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your child’s ability to face the new. In a gentle, non-public way, you can say, “Remember how last time it seemed like the new food would be bad but you tried it, and it turned out to be yummy? I thought you might like this food too.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can offer reflections like:
- “You looked like you were not sure what to do when you didn’t like the fruit and did not want to eat anymore. Would you like to practice what you can do if that happens again?” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your child gain a sense of security to face them rather than backing away.
- You can also offer comfort items to help your child face new challenges. “We are having a lot of guests come to our house for dinner tonight. Would you like to bring your bear to the dinner table to help you feel more comfortable?” Bring a comfort item with you as you face new challenges.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and healthy eating habits. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior you want to see more of. For example, “You tried the new casserole — I love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you try this, I will give you a cookie” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You tried the new vegetable. I really love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. If your child was unwilling to try the vegetables last night but tried them today, notice the change. “I notice you tried a bite of vegetables tonight. You did not want to do that last night, but you were brave tonight to try them!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like a fear or insecurity to go away – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them. “I noticed you tried a little bite of each new food on your plate.”
- Notice when your child tries something new or recovers smoothly from a challenging situation. These conversations might start happening naturally during your bedtime routine or when snuggling up to read stories together.
- Build celebrations into your everyday routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.