Child building a puzzle out of different food types
Piecing together a healthy diet doesn't need to be difficult! Enjoy a variety of foods from all five food groups in moderation

February 22, 2017

Helping Keiki Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food

How to Nurture a Life-Long Love of Nutrition

Eat Healthy

Parents and caregivers play a key role in helping young children develop a healthy relationship with food.

“Developing a healthy relationship with food is just as important as eating healthy food to support a child's growth and development,” says Dr. Brigitte Carreau, a pediatrician with Kauai Medical Clinic. 

Children are born knowing when they are hungry and when they are full. By teaching children to listen to their bodies – rather than telling them to “clean their plates” – you are supporting the skills that they need for healthy eating as they get older. 

“Encouraging children to eat a nutritious, balanced diet early on is important for a number of reasons,” Carreau says. “Ensuring they get the right vitamins and minerals in their diet will help them grow and develop optimally. They are also more likely to be energized and motivated, supporting their ability to learn.” 

Also, if children grow up eating fruits and vegetables more often than cookies and chips, they are more likely to reach for healthier choices in adulthood. 

“Teaching kids positive eating behaviors during childhood can set them up with healthy eating habits for life, which can prevent their risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and much more,” Carreau says. “Developing a positive relationship with food, as well as a balanced approach to eating, can lead to better health outcomes in the long run.” 

Parents often underestimate their role in the development of healthy eating habits. However, experts agree that speaking positively to children about healthy foods and role modeling balanced eating is the first step in helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food. 

“Set your children up for life by being a positive role model and create healthy habits from the start,” Carreau advises. “Eat healthy foods together, be active every day, and love your own body. Your child is learning from everything that you do.” 

Carreau offers the following tips for helping keiki (and adults!) create a healthier relationship with food:

  • Enjoy all foods in moderation.
  • Cook meals at home, and encourage children to help. Involve your kids in the menu planning and shopping too.
  • Pick a color a day to eat each day of the week. For example, lunch on a “Red Wednesday” can be a tomato and mozzarella sandwich with strawberries or a red apple.
  • Talk about healthy foods from the different food groups and what they do for your body.
  • Ensure your child’s diet is balanced and contains a variety of foods from all five food groups – grains, vegetables, fruits, lean protein (meat, fish and beans) and dairy.
  • Fill your fridge and pantry with a variety of healthy foods that are easily accessible, such as whole fruits, whole-grain crackers, yogurt or pre-sliced veggie sticks with hummus.
  • Avoid using food as a reward or bribe, or holding back on foods as punishment. Use activities or trips to the park as alternatives.
  • For the fussy eater, try laying a few different things out on different plates in the middle of the table and encouraging them to try, but don’t make a big deal if they leave the food where it is. 

“Children start to form food likes and dislikes from an early age, so always offer variety,” Carreau says. “It may take many attempts for your child to like a new food, so don’t give up. Offer small amounts at first, and try presenting new foods in a fun, engaging way.”