March is national nutrition month, and while kids are stereotypically seen as picky eaters, there are some things parents can do to help instill healthy nutrition habits in their youngsters.

We spoke with Jennifer Van Barneveld-Pe, a Toronto-based registered holistic nutritionist, personal trainer, and corrective exercise specialist to get some expert tips on how to create healthy eating habits in kids. Here are 6 key areas to focus on:

Grocery shopping

Van Barneveld-Pe suggests sticking to the outside edges of the grocery store, where nutrient-dense whole foods such as meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and veggies are found.

“Navigating through the grocery store can be a very confusing task, especially because the majority of the foods in the aisles aren’t ‘real foods’ – especially ones that are catered to children,” she says. “I frequently see mothers stocking up on packaged food items oblivious to the chemical ingredients that make up these foods.”

She recommends parents build their grocery list around whole foods, and go over it with their kids.

“They can help you find the items and get involved in grocery shopping as a family. This will hopefully deter them from getting distracted with fancy packaged foods.”

Basic cooking skills

While they won’t be slicing and dicing for a few years, Van Barneveld-Pe says most children will express an interest in helping mom and dad in the kitchen around age 3–4, which is a great time to get them involved in age-appropriate tasks.

“Get them to help out with things like flattening cookies or rolling meatballs or helping to wash fruits and vegetables. This also provides an opportunity to discuss and share nutritional information,” she says. “All of these small jobs make the child feel like he or she is helping, and they also learn to improve their motor skills and organize their thinking through the tasks.”

A 2014 review of multiple studies on children’s eating habits and involvement in the kitchen found those who were involved in meal prep consumed more fruits and vegetables, had an increased willingness to try new foods and were more confident in their kitchen skills.

Don’t be afraid to try something new

Van Barneveld-Pe encourages families to make an effort to try different whole foods, including a range of spices, each day, for variety and to develop little ones’ palates. Even something as simple as experimenting with different add-ins to a morning bowl of oatmeal will help create variety in flavours and health benefits.

“The earlier your child is exposed to a variety of textures, spices, and flavours, the less likely they will become picky eaters, and the more likely they will consume highly nutritious foods.”

She adds that even exotic fruits and vegetables should be offered to young children. Don’t be discouraged if your youngster doesn’t take to a particular food right away, studies have shown it can take up to 12 exposures to a particular food before a child eats it willingly.

“There are so many health benefits to trying foods from different parts of the world, and it’s also an opportunity to expand their knowledge in this area,” she adds.

Mindful eating

Van Barneveld-Pe believes that teaching children to be mindful of their eating can start as early as a parent feels comfortable. This helps ensure children understand what quality foods are and what processed foods are, and how they add or detract from overall health and wellness.

“Asking them what hunger feels like to them can help develop better control over cravings and management of emotional eating,” she says. “Encourage them to use all of their senses prior to eating what you put in front of them, along with eating as slow as possible for optimal digestion and improved metabolic rate. Ask them to look at the food and describe it, smell it, what does it smell like? Feel it. What does it feel like? Taste it. What does it taste like? Did they enjoy it?”

Growing your own

Researchers at St. Louis University found that children who had access to homegrown produce ate more fruits and vegetables, and also preferred their taste to other foods, compared with children who didn’t have access to garden-fresh produce.

“Teaching children how to grow their own food is a fun and very educational way to learn about healthy eating and introduce them to the fun wonders of nature. Being able to grow fruits and vegetables and bring their home-grown produce to the dinner table will give kids a sense of accomplishment and an appreciation for food that they grew with love and patience,” says Van Barneveld-Pe. “It’s also a great time to teach them the difference between grown ‘whole food’ in comparison to packaged, man-made food.”

There are no ‘bad’ foods

Van Barneveld-Pe says that it’s very important how parents label food.

“If we constantly tell our children that ‘this is good food’ and ‘that is bad food’ they will begin to categorize foods into negative and positive associations, which can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and also themselves.”

She suggests parents can instead teach children that some foods are for special occasions or events, while other foods should be eaten more often to allow them to grow up healthy and strong.

Caitlin McCormack is a writer, editor and full-time mama to one cool little dude. When she’s not spending time at the park or working on recipes in the kitchen, you can find her lifting weights, growing her own veggies, or enjoying some precious time with her shift-working husband. Read her blog at Big City Mama or follow her on Twitter @Caitlin_Writes.

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