Raise your hand if your kids eat cake three times a weekend at various birthday parties, cap off dinner every night with a sweet treat, or rarely finish playing a soccer or baseball games without digging into a baggie of cookies from the team snack parent. Sound familiar?
Yep: Junk. Is. Everywhere.
“Kids, [and] adults, are bombarded by unhealthy food all the time...the food is non-stop,” says Dyan Hes, MD, a pediatrician in New York City who is double board certified in pediatrics and obesity medicine.
It’s no surprise that kids eat treats all the time—especially if they’re surrounded by them and they don’t necessarily understand why certain foods aren’t healthy choices. (It’s hard enough for you, an adult, to say no to a dessert craving, and you know why you shouldn’t.)
That’s why it critical to teach kids what healthy eating is at home, says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutritionist and cookbook author in New York City. “It’s fine to have treats, it’s fine to have cake and ice cream, but that has to be balanced out with the healthy stuff—the fruits, the veggies, the whole grains, and the lean proteins,” she says.
Teaching your kids to have a healthy relationship with food early on can give them the tools to be healthy for the rest of their life. Here are five pediatrician- and nutritionist-approved ways to encourage kids to eat more nutritiously.
1. Limit desserts to weekends. “For my family, our rule is that we can have dessert Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So that usually covers those birthday parties and things like that,” says Largeman-Roth.
2. Don’t deprive. “It’s important not to deprive kids ether, because they’re going to gorge when they see their sweets and their goldfish and their pretzels,” says Alok Patel, a pediatrician at New York Presbyterian and Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.
3. Supplement treats with healthy choices. “Talk to them [about] why things aren’t healthy,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital and HealthiNation’s chief medical editor. “Say, ‘you know what you can have this now, then later let’s pick a healthy choice. What’s the healthy choice we’re going to eat today because we just had that treat?’”
4. Teach how treats affect their body. “Say, ‘we can have treats, but this is what it does to your body. It’s going to make your stomach not feel so good, and you’re going to have low energy,’ Educate them. You’ll be surprised how much kids actually respond to that,” says Dr. Parikh.
5. Limit portions. Tell your kids: “If you eat healthy and you eat fruits and vegetables, good lean proteins almost all of the time, then when you go to that birthday party you can have that piece of cake. You can’t have two pieces of pizza, you don’t have to have two pieces of cake, but you can have it. But if you don’t eat well all the time then I’m not going to let you have it when we go out to that party,” says Dr. Hes.
Just like in your own diet, it’s OK for kids to indulge, as long as they’re healthy most of the time. “Parents don’t like to say no all the time, so it has to be about balance,” says Dr. Hes.