Family eating dinner

There’s more than plates being passed around a dinner table. It’s where we learn about food and eating habits—often subconsciously. Many of us were taught that foods are good or bad, or that we needed to clean our plates before leaving the table.

In these and other ways, adults inadvertently complicate food for the younger generation.

Ayesha Mohiuddin, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hermann Pediatrics Atascocita, wants her own children—and her patients—to have a healthy relationship with what they consume.

“Dessert should not be a motivator,” says Dr. Mohiuddin. “Nor should kids be told they have to finish everything on their plate.”

Here are her tips on how you can help children think positively about food.

Downsize: Serve smaller portions rather than give kids adult-sized portions they cannot finish or eat anyway and stuff themselves. “You can give them a little more if they’re still hungry,” she says. “That way you’re not wasteful or encouraging them to overeat.”

Motivate: Dr. Mohiuddin used to call food healthy or non-healthy. “Now that I have kids, I realize I need to be more concrete,” she says.

Dr. Mohiuddin tells elementary school and younger tykes the benefits of certain foods for their bodies, such as how carrots improve eyesight, spinach builds muscles and vitamin D and calcium strengthen bones.

Once youths reach middle school, Dr. Mohiuddin explains long-term perks for a balanced, produce-plentiful food plan. These create a healthier life with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease.  “I tell teen girls that it’s important to build their bone bank, so they don’t have osteoporosis from more fragile bones when they’re older.”

Demonstrate: U.S. Department of Agriculture’s My Plate is a great visual reference for how much protein, produce and carbohydrates are part of a balanced food plan.

Get Kids Involved: When children help you plan meals, write grocery lists, pick healthy recipes and prep food, they’re more likely to eat food that they might otherwise resist, Dr. Mohiuddin says.

Act Out: The best role model is you.

“Modeling good behavior is key,” Dr. Mohiuddin says. “If children see parents or family members eating well-balanced meals and using moderation when eating foods that are not the best for us, they are encouraged to do the same.”

Similarly, be a model for movement. Daily, walk, run and play sports with your children.

Don't Obsess About Scale: “When it comes to weight, a number is just a number. It doesn’t tell me a person’s beauty or personality,” she says. “I care more about what’s going on within the body. I advocate for increased physical activity and portion control. But we shouldn’t eliminate food groups or deny children sweets.”

Watch Your Language: Rather than condemn foods by calling them bad or unhealthy and denying access, focus instead on portion control.

“Growing up, if I wasn’t allowed something, I’d want to eat more of it when I could get access,” she says. “Kids are going to be exposed to candy, so mine can eat it, but in moderation.”

And rather than reserve dessert as a reward for finishing dinner, Dr. Mohiuddin may put a cookie on or next to their plate. “They can take a bite, but they still have to eat their meal, too.

“We do go out for ice cream—not as a reward for their behavior—but as a family activity.”

For healthy recipe ideas, click here.

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