Healthy Eating in Children: Things That Influence Food Choices
A number of things have a powerful influence on how and what we eat. Consider the following as you plan healthy food choices for your child:
- Availability of food. Because food is so readily available in our culture, it is easy to eat without thinking about how hungry you really are or how much you have already eaten that day. Some schools have vending machines and snack bars with poor food choices. Fast food restaurants are everywhere. In fast food restaurants, "super-sized" meals can lead us to purchase and eat more food than our bodies need. Even regular portions are very large compared to the past. Portion sizes are increasing. Having a structured meal and snack schedule can help you and your child keep your hunger in check. This helps avoid unplanned fast-food and vending-machine purchases.
- Eating routines. Adults and children who eat regular meals tend to have better diets and be closer to a healthy weight than those who "graze" throughout the day. One of the main barriers to planning regular and balanced meals is a busy lifestyle. But taking the time to plan meals can help you improve your and your child's nutrition. Family meals are an important time to share and discuss the day's events. They also teach children what balanced meals look like.
- Food marketing. Marketing creates a desire for many less-than-nutritious foods. Snack foods—marketed not for their nutritional value, but for their fun and taste—often replace the healthier foods we could be eating. Foods advertised on television during children's shows tend to have very little nutritional value. Marketing also caters to a busy lifestyle. Grocery store shelves are crowded with frozen meals, microwavable meals, instant soups and stews, and prepackaged lunches. These foods usually contain few fruits and vegetables and are often high in fat and salt. Marketing often targets children through tie-ins between movies, fast-food restaurants, and toys. Children then pressure their parents to visit certain restaurants and buy foods for them based on whether they can get a desired toy. Resist this type of marketing, and plan the meals you know are nutritious.
- Cultural and social meanings of food. We may serve and eat foods because we were brought up eating them and find them comforting. Some people eat, or don't eat, certain foods based on religious, political, or social beliefs. Many ethnic foods can be very healthy, and they have developed over time because they supported life. For example, spaghetti with tomato, meat sauce, and Parmesan cheese includes four food groups. Tacos contain four food groups also. These foods can be nutritious if they don't contain too much fat.
- Emotions.Depression, anxiety, boredom, and stress often lead to unhealthy eating habits, both in adults and children. Sometimes attempts to change eating habits cannot succeed until we learn to manage the emotions and stress in our lives. In children, ongoing stress can cause a change in normal growth, leading to too much or too little weight or height gain. Fixing the problem that is causing a child's stress (rather than resorting to a weight-loss or weight-gain diet) will return a child to a normal growth pattern.