The eating habits of children start when they’re young, so it’s important for parents and caregivers to encourage healthy eating from the start. But that's often easier said than done, especially if you have a picky eater or a full schedule. Whether you have a toddler or a teen, there are strategies to encourage good eating habits that help kids make healthy food choices.

Weight-Related Health Issues on the Rise in Children and Adolescents

In recent years, childhood obesity has become a serious problem in the United States. A diet of processed foods, consuming too much sugar, and inactivity are leading to record levels of children who are overweight or obese. 

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 19 percent of children and adolescents ages 2-19 were obese in 2018 – that's about 14 million kids. In addition, 16 percent were considered overweight and six percent had severe obesity.A 2021 study of 432,302 children ages 2-19 found that the rate of increase in body mass index (BMI) nearly doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic.2

As a result, the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in children and adolescents is on the rise.3,4 Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that occur together, including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Metabolic syndrome increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.5 

Start with Small Changes to a Child's Diet 

Even when weight isn't an issue, getting kids to eat healthy food can be challenging. The key is to start with small dietary changes. Find a few opportunities to swap an unhealthy food with a more nutritious option. Examples include:6-8

Unhealthy Item

Healthier Alternative

Soda or high-sugar drink or juice

Flavored sparkling water

Ice cream 

Low-fat or plain yogurt with fruit or a fruit smoothie 

Potato chips 

Baked chips, air-popped popcorn, or nuts

White bread or pasta

Whole grain or wheat bread and pasta

Tips to Reduce Added Sugar 

Children in the United States eat and drink too much added sugar –  sugars and syrups added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. 

Recent data shows that the average daily intake of added sugars is 17 teaspoons for children and young adults ages 2-19.  That's nearly three times the recommended daily amount of sugar – which is about six teaspoons for children ages two years and older.9

Sugary drinks are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet (regular soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened water), followed by desserts and sweet snacks.9,10  

By FDA regulation, food labels are required to list added sugar separately, so you can easily identify how much sugar is added to a food product. In general, aim for less than 25 grams (about six teaspoons) of added sugar daily for children ages 2 years and older. Avoid serving food and drinks with added sugar to children under age two.9,10

In addition to limiting sugary drinks, try the following tips to reduce the amount of sugar you and your children consume.6,11,12

  1. Modify recipes. Many recipes taste just as good with less sugar. Reduce sugar by one-third or one-quarter of the amount listed in the recipe.
  2. Eat more fruit. Fruit has plenty of natural sugar that can satisfy a sweet tooth. Make desserts centered around fruit or substitute a fruit smoothie for a milkshake.
  3. Don't offer dessert as a reward. Withholding dessert can send the message that dessert is the best food, which can increase a child's desire for sweets. Instead, select one or two nights a week as dessert nights and skip dessert the rest of the week.  
  4. Limit 100-percent fruit juice. It has more sugar per serving than whole fruit. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than four ounces of 100-percent fruit juice a day for children ages 1-3; 4-6 ounces for children ages 4-6; and eight ounces for children ages 7-14. Do not give fruit juice to infants under age one.
  5. Don’t ban sweets. Telling a child that he or she can't eat sweets might backfire by creating a craving for sweet treats or overeating when sweets are consumed. Instead, make sweet foods a special treat instead of a regular part of a child's diet.

Tips to Help Kids Form Healthy Habits Around Food

Eating healthy is not just about food choices. It also includes forming healthy habits about eating. By following some basic guidelines, you can help your child become a healthy eater.13-17

  1. Be a role model. Kids eat the way you eat. If you follow healthy eating habits, then your child will be more inclined to eat that way, too.
  2. Make healthy choices easy. Put healthy food where it’s easy to see, like a bowl of grapes or apples on the counter. Stock your kitchen with healthy foods – fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If you don’t buy unhealthy food, then your kids won’t eat it at home.
  3. Turn off screens during mealtime. Turn off the television and other electronics during meals. This will help your child focus on eating. Eating while watching TV leads to mindless eating and consuming more calories. 
  4. Designate a snack zone and boundariesOnly allow snacking in certain areas, such as the kitchen. Put snacks like pretzels or popcorn on a plate or in a bowl and don’t let your child eat directly out of the bag. For snacks on the go, offer a banana, string cheese, healthy cereal bars, carrot sticks, or other healthy options. 
  5. Eat together. Children who eat meals with their family are more likely to eat fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods.
  6. Don’t force kids to eat. Don't bribe or force your child to eat certain foods or clean his or her plate. This might only ignite – or reinforce – a power struggle over food. In addition, your child might come to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration or become less sensitive to his or her own hunger and fullness cues. 

There are many ways to encourage children to eat healthy. Although your child's eating habits won't change overnight, the small steps you take each day can promote a lifetime of healthy eating.


References

  1. Fryar CD, Carroll MD, Afful J. Prevalence of overweight, obesity, and severe obesity among children and adolescents aged 2-19 years: United States, 1963-1965 through 2017-2018. NCHS Health E-Stats. 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity-child-17-18/overweight-obesity-child-H.pdf. [Accessed Feb. 17, 2022]
  2. Lange SJ, Kompaniyets L, Freedman DS, et al. Longitudinal trends in body mass index before and during the COVID-19 pandemic among persons aged 2-19 years – United States, 2018-2020. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021;70:1278-1283.
  3. Wu YE, Zhang CL, Zhen Q. Metabolic syndrome in children (Review). Exp Ther Med 2016;12(4):2390-2394.
  4. Tagi VM, Samvelyan S, Chiarelli F. Treatment of metabolic syndrome in children. Horm Res Paediatr 2020;93(4):215-225. 
  5. Mayo Clinic. Metabolic Syndrome. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/metabolic-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20351916 [Accessed Feb. 17, 2022]
  6. Mayo Clinic. Snacks: How they fit into your weight-loss plan. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/healthy-diet/art-20046267 [Accessed Feb. 17, 2022]
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eat more, weigh less. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/energy_density.html. [Accessed Feb. 17, 2022]
  8. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Healthy cooking and snacking. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/healthy-cooking.htm. [Accessed Feb. 19, 2022]
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get the facts: Added sugars.   https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/added-sugars.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fnutrition%2Fdata-statistics%2Fknow-your-limit-for-added-sugars.html. [Accessed Feb. 17, 2022]
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rethink your drink.   https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/drinks.html. [Accessed Feb. 19, 2022]
  11. American Academy of Pediatrics. Added sugar in kids' diets: How much is too much? https://publications.aap.org/aapnews/news/7331. [Accessed Feb. 19, 2022]
  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tips to help children maintain a healthy weight. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/children/index.html. [Accessed Feb. 17, 2022]
  13. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. We Can! Picky Eaters. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/downloads/tip-picky-eater.pdf. [Accessed Feb. 19, 2022]
  14. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. We Can! Reduce Screen Time. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/reduce-screen-time/index.htm. [Accessed Feb. 15, 2022]
  15. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. We Can! Help your kids eat healthy and move more. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/downloads/tip-eat-healthy.pdf. [Accessed Feb. 15, 2022]
  16. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. We Can! Be a good health role model. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/downloads/tip-role-model.pdf. [Accessed Feb. 15, 2022]
  17. Mayo Clinic. Children's nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/childrens-health/art-20044948. [Accessed Feb. 19, 2022]