Encouraging healthy food choices early

Your child’s beliefs and attitudes about food, as well as her eating habits, start at home and very early in life.

You can set the scene for healthy food choices by modelling healthy eating and by providing a wide range of nutritious foods at home. Talking together about how healthy food keeps you well and gives you energy to play, grow and learn helps your child understand why it’s important to make healthy choices.

You can also get your child involved in choosing healthy family food – for example, by letting him help with the shopping list and taking him along when you go food shopping.

As your child gets older, she’ll like having some input into what foods go in her lunch or snack box. Eventually, your child will be able to make her own lunch and snacks for school, using the different healthy options you’ve chosen together from the family fridge and pantry.

Letting your child have a say in family food gives him great practice in making good choices, which will come in handy when he’s older and eating out or away from home.

How do you get children to choose good food? These four short videos on healthy food choices show how shopping for healthy food together and involving your child in preparing meals can help set up lifelong healthy eating habits from your child’s early years.

Making healthy choices when eating away from home

Your child or family might have an active social life, with lots of eating away from home.

Your child might also want to buy snacks and lunches from the school canteen or when she’s out and about with the family. Older children often like to stop off for a snack or drink on their way home from school too.

These are all great opportunities for your child to practise choosing good food, but they’re also times when your child might be tempted by any ‘sometimes’ foods on offer. There are a couple of things you can do to help your child make healthy food choices in these situations.

Strike a balance
‘Sometimes’ foods include chips, chocolates, lollies, cakes, pastries, muesli bars, soft drinks, juices and takeaway foods – basically anything that’s high in sugar, salt and/or fat, and low in nutrition.

You can help your child take a balanced approach to sometimes foods by:

  • saving sometimes foods for special occasions
  • teaching your child to stop eating when he’s 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 sometimes foods are
  • trying not to use sometimes foods as a bribe or reward for good behaviour
  • trying not to limit sometimes foods so much that they’re extra exciting – and a bit naughty – in your child’s eyes.

Be prepared
If you know you’re going to be out at a time when your child is likely to be hungry – for example, after school or sport – try to take 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 better than soft drink, sports drink or juice.

And if your child is going to be out without you at a time she often gets hungry, why not suggest she packs an extra piece of fruit or some yoghurt instead?

This way neither you nor your child will have to raid the vending machine, snack bar or fast food shop for unhealthy options – and you’ll both save money too!

Child care gives children a chance to eat with others and try new foods and tastes. If your child isn’t keen on the food at his child care setting, talk with his carers. By working together with child care staff, you can reinforce healthy food messages and eating for your child.

Making healthy choices when eating out

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 some tips to help you guide 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, she 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 he doesn’t need to finish everything on his plate – food portions at restaurants are usually larger than your child would eat at home.
  • If your child wants dessert, encourage her to share a dessert.
  • If ordering takeaway, encourage your child to skip soft drinks and avoid upsizing.
Restaurants sometimes have nutrition labelling on their menus. For example, it might show how many kilojoules or calories are in a dish. This can help you and your child decide which dish is the healthiest option.

Teenagers eating out

As your child gets older, his growing independence means he’ll probably eat out more often with his friends.

Teenagers often have their own money and start to make their own decisions about which foods they eat. And teenagers often choose food outlets that don’t have a lot of healthy options because these options are cheap, easy or popular.

You can help your child find ways to make healthier choices while still joining in on the fun. For example, when she’s out with friends, she 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.

Quick and easy 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’ve got 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. That way you can save sometimes foods for special occasions.

If you do choose to have takeaway, go for a healthier option – for example, a low-fat salad roll instead of hot chips and a burger.