Parents provide, children decide. 

That’s Public Health Nurse Emily Anderson’s advice to help kids create good eating habits. 

To get kids to eat healthy foods, repeated exposures of new healthy foods in a low-pressure environment is key. 

“Picky eating is a huge concern for parents,” Anderson said. “For young kids, one of the best things you can do is keep exposing them to new foods.” She referenced a study that said it could take 60 exposures to a new food for a kid to come around, but added getting her own kid to like salad possibly took 300 exposures before she came around.  

“Salads are part of our family meals so we kept (giving her a little salad),” she said. “Eventually she started taking little bites and now it’s one of her favorites.”

She also recommended always serving a new food with a food they already like, and not getting mad if they don’t eat the new food. 

“For parents, don’t get frustrated and don’t get emotionally invested,” she said. “It’s very easy for us to cater to just what they want, but our job is to provide peaceful meal times and it’s our kids jobs to eat those meals or not. Just because kids won’t eat roasted broccoli one night doesn’t mean you should stop serving it.”

Anderson referenced what she called the “5, 2, 1, 0” way of thinking about diet and exercise. The five is the number or recommended fruits and vegetables a child should eat per day, two is referring to the maximum recommended hours of screen time, one is the number of hours kids should do activities per day and zero refers to sugar sweetened beverages, like soda. 

She said it’s healthier to get fruits and vegetables from whole foods as opposed to juices. Juices are bad for teeth and not very filling, she said. 

Kids want to eat all of the time, but it’s okay for them to be hungry at meal times. 

“If they’re grazing all day long, it can be frustrating,” she said. “You may find meal times don’t go super well.”

She also stressed that forcing kids to clean their plate clean could cause emotional eating issues. “We don’t want to do that to our kids,” she said. “When they’re full, it’s OK to stop.” 

Anderson stressed that every family’s situation is different, the recommendations aren’t always possible and you don’t want to shame anyone. 

For screen times, for instance, she suggested parents just be sensible about how much time they are spending in front of screens. 

“That’s something to think about when you’re thinking about how to structure your kid’s day,” she said. “If they’re not sitting in front of a screen, kids are pretty active. Kids are curious and like to explore. As parents and caregivers, we have to be the ones to provide that time and space.” 

Whether they do activities indoors or outdoors isn’t as important as how much one enjoys the activity, especially since there are plenty of good activities that can be done indoors. 

“Research shows in order for exercise to stick, it has to be something you enjoy,” Anderson said. “Choose activities that bring children joy and are sustainable.”

For further reading on making healthy diet decisions, Anderson recommended Jill Castle’s book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, and also the website ellynsatterinstitute.org.

“They’re both great resources for parents,” she said. 

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