Parents: Top 5 Eating Habits to Teach Your Kids

With the simple act of repeating your actions over and over with your family, you’re instilling deep and lasting habits into your children. The family routine you create, how and when you sit down to meals, what kinds of snacks and treats you offer, the atmosphere around cooking and eating and many more aspects of your family life all contribute to habits that will become their default behavior for many years of their lives. You’re showing them what kind of relationship to have with food and that will be the relationship that sustains them in good times, what they tend to do when they have other things on their mind and the one they fall back on in times of stress. These eating habits will be repeated hundreds of thousands of times in their lifetime – all on autopilot – and can add up over years to huge numbers of extra calories and many extra pounds.

Having coached hundreds of adults trying valiantly to change their bad eating habits later in life and done extensive research on eating behaviors, I can tell you what plagues people long after their childhood is over – and what created those issues in the first place. Plan the healthy eating habits you hope to instill in your children now and make sure your actions are supporting the habits you’re trying to create. Using these 5 keystone habits with your kids will help them develop a resilient, balanced mentality around eating and a healthy relationship with food.

You don’t have to implement these habits perfectly every single time. Go for ‘most of the time’ and check yourself by noticing if you do it enough that they come to expect and rely on it. If your kids know you’re going to take away their devices when it’s time to eat because that’s the way meals are in your home, then they’re getting it. If they remind each other (or you if you forget), then they’re getting it. If they’re getting it, then it’s ok to have a special night when you all watch a movie over dinner together or some other bending of the rules.

1. Don’t force them to clear their plate

Let them decide when they’re done eating. In my two decades of working with morbidly obese patients struggling to lose weight, I’ve seen many of them compelled to ‘clear their plate’ or unable to leave food they weren’t hungry for and didn’t need because they couldn’t bear to ‘waste food’ and the guilt their parents associated with leaving food uneaten. Many parents in the last few generations taught their children not to waste food because ‘children in Africa were starving’. They unwittingly taught their kids a scarcity mentality around the availability of food and a sense of guilt if they didn’t eat beyond when they felt full or wanted to stop. This creates a double bind – where either way you feel bad. This emotional double bind results in an eating habit that has lasting repercussions and can be really difficult to eradicate years later.

Instead, teach an abundance mentality – that you have enough food to share. Give food to food banks, drop meals off for new mothers or sick neighbors and invite people to dinner to share in the food you have.

2. Help them grow vegetables

Then prepare and eat them together. If you want kale to be your child’s favorite food, then help them plant kale in a small garden. Give them the job of watering it, picking it when it’s ripe, and chopping it up. Eat it for lunch together. Kids love to be involved and love to eat what they’ve grown and it will quickly become a lasting favorite. Years later, they might reminisce about the sweet taste of the tomatoes they grew with you and notice that they still love caprese salad, still make their own tomato sauce fresh and they might feel inspired to get out the tomato cages and plant some tomato starts with their little ones.

Peas and tomatoes are great vegetables to plant with children because they’re super easy to grow in just about any climate and kids can eat them right off the vine. Tomatoes are particularly easy to grow in a planter box if you don’t have a patch of earth or indoors if you don’t have any space outside. The taste of veggies right off the vine is incomparable to any other way and it will spoil you for imported, box-ripened store-bought versions. They might even become *your* favorite food.

3. Show them how to eat without distractions

Don’t eat in the car or in front of the TV. Research on eating habits is really clear that distracted eating results in overeating and weight gain. It results in eating without conscious decision making about what or how much to eat. It disconnects you from your gut in a way that causes confused, irrational and mindless eating, in which your head is not listening to what your body is saying because it’s not paying attention to your body and can’t hear it anymore. When your mind is connected to your gut, they communicate and work together to get, cook and eat what you truly need, what nourishes you, what makes you feel stronger and healthier. You’re physiologically programmed to do this. This ‘gut sense’ is called mindful eating. And it’s naturally developed when you’re young by not eating while distracted.

4. Teach them not to eat with their emotions

In the same way you teach a teenager not to drive when they’re angry to avoid accidents, show your kids how to soothe themselves from emotional turmoil without resorting to food. Parents often want to stop the crying or cheer a child up as quickly as possible and take them to get ice cream or give them some other sugary treat. But this turns sweet treats into their go-to method for feeling better – it literally defines how they ‘treat themselves’ to something special in the future. As they grow into adults in an anxious and driven world, they’re going to need much better techniques for soothing themselves than that and you can set them on the right path now.

Emotional eating is a deeply rooted eating habit that plagues most obese people and is arguably one of the biggest causes of weight gain and inability to lose weight. It stems from using eating as your go-to way to soothe yourself when you’re upset, which is not only not very effective but also has many damaging health consequences. Teach children how to manage their big emotions in healthy, sustainable ways – without food. Hold them while they cry, give them undivided attention and love, reward them with special experiences, extra decision making power or time with friends. But avoid pulling out a dessert to make them feel better.

5. Make food a time of social connection

For thousands of years, we’ve ‘broken bread’ together as a way of connecting to each other – to welcome visiting strangers, to strengthen bonds within the tribe. When families eat together, they share things with each other that otherwise might go unnoticed. If you’re wondering how your teen is doing, eat dinner with them more often – eventually it will come out over conversation and good listening on your part.

Even though we see each other every day, we all have busy schedules and can so easily short-change our deeper communication, where we commiserate over problems together and share in each other’s successes. We can miss important undercurrents or shifts in mood that indicate something’s happened that might be best talked about. Over food, conversation deepens and relationships get stronger. Teach children the habit of eating together in a warm, inviting way and give them the gift of a deeply ingrained habit that will strengthen their relationships and serve them throughout their lives.