Encouraging healthy food choices early: why it’s important
Children need healthy food for overall health and development. This is why it’s important to start early with healthy food and eating habits at home.
Your choice of foods at home is important for other reasons too. For example, it can guide children towards healthy independent food choices as they get older and start eating away from home.
You have a big role to play in choosing good food and modelling healthy eating habits for your child. Read more about healthy eating habits for children and healthy eating habits for teenagers.
Making healthy choices when eating away from home
Your child or family might have an active social life, with a lot of eating away from home.
Your child might also want to buy snacks and lunches from the school canteen or when they’re out and about with the family. If your child is older, they might like getting a snack or drink on their way home from school.
These are all great opportunities for your child to practise choosing healthy food, but they’re also times when your child might want to have ‘sometimes’ foods instead. There are a few things you can do to encourage your child to make healthy food choices in these situations.
Strike a balance
Sometimes foods tend to be high in sugar, salt and/or saturated fat, and low in vitamins, minerals and nutrition. These foods include chips, chocolates, lollies, cakes, pastries, soft drinks, juices and takeaway foods.
You can help your child take a balanced approach to sometimes foods by:
- teaching your child to stop eating when they’re feeling full
- trying not to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but focusing instead on all the good things about healthy eating
- not making a big deal about how ‘tasty’, ‘exciting’ or ‘naughty’ sometimes foods are – this can make the foods seem more appealing
- trying not to use sometimes foods as a reward for good behaviour – this can make sometimes foods more ‘prized’ and appealing too.
If you know your child is going to be out at a time when they’re likely to be hungry – for example, after school or sport – pack options for quick, healthy snacks. For example, fruit, cheese or vegetable sticks are quick and easy, and a water bottle from home is cheaper and lower in sugar than soft drink, sports drink or juice.
This way your child won’t have to raid the vending machine, snack bar or fast food shop for less healthy options – and you’ll save money too!
If your child’s child care centre provides lunch and snacks, this can be a chance to eat with others and try new foods and tastes. Children will often try new foods when they see other children enjoying them. If your child doesn’t like the food at their child care setting, talk with their carers. By working together with child care staff, you can encourage your child to eat a variety of healthy food.
Making healthy choices when eating out at restaurants
Eating out in restaurants and takeaway outlets often means eating foods that are higher in fat and sugar than you’d have at home. Here are tips for guiding your child towards healthy choices when you’re eating out:
- Talk with your child about the different menu options and encourage balance. For example, if your child orders a burger, they could ask for a side salad instead of chips.
- Share meals from the adult menu if the children’s meals are fried and have no salad or vegetables. You could also see whether you can get a half-portion of an adult meal for your child.
- Let your child know that they don’t need to finish everything on their plate – food portions at restaurants are usually larger than at home.
- If your child wants dessert, encourage them to share dessert with someone else in the family.
- If ordering takeaway, encourage your child to skip soft drinks and avoid upsizing.
Teenagers eating out
As your child gets older, their growing independence means they’ll probably eat out more often with their friends.
Teenagers often have their own money and start to make their own decisions about which foods they eat. Teenagers often choose food outlets that don’t have a lot of healthy options because these options are cheap, easy to access or popular.
You can help your child find ways to make healthier choices while still joining in on the fun. For example, when they’re out with friends, they could suggest places with healthier options, make better choices from the foods that are available, and avoid sweet drinks like soft drinks, juice, shakes and slushies.
Children are often the target of advertising and social media promoting unhealthy food choices. It’s a good idea to talk with your child about common food advertising strategies. These include toys packaged with takeaway meals, claims like ‘Australia’s best pizza’, free fast food vouchers from sporting events, and celebrity endorsements.
Eating in: takeaway or homemade meals?
Everyone enjoys a meal out and a night off from cooking. But you might find yourself choosing takeaway because you feel like you don’t have enough time or energy to cook.
If this sounds like your situation, you do have other options. As long as you have healthy ingredients in your fridge and pantry, you can make quick, healthy meals at home in the time it takes to order and collect a takeaway.
For example, you and your child could make a pizza together, using pita bread topped with tomato, vegetables and low-fat cheese. A quick tuna and vegetable pasta is another idea. And it’s very quick to cook a vegetable and noodle stir-fry. That way you can save sometimes foods for special occasions.
If you do choose to have takeaway, go for a healthier option – for example, sushi, a stir-fry or a salad roll instead of deep-fried foods.