The habits we learn as children set us up for the rest of our lives. Remember the marshmallow study? We’ll give you a quick recap: a research study was done where children were given a marshmallow and told that, if they waited to eat it, they could receive a second marshmallow. When the study looked at these children in the future, it found that those who could delay gratification and wait for the second marshmallow had better life outcomes than those who were unable to wait.

It’s strange to think that something so small as the choice of when to eat dessert could impact your character, but the choices we make as children are highly indicative of our future growth. When it comes to diet, this is especially true. These learned behaviors can impact your health for the rest of your life, even if you’re not cognizant of the choice at the time.

To keep your child healthy, you’ll need to encourage these positive health behaviors as early as possible. Let’s go over how you can promote practical diet choices in your family.

Why is nutrition so important?

Early childhood nutrition is vital to raising a healthy child. Children do the bulk of their growth and development in their early years, and malnutrition can cause lifelong issues. Developing poor eating habits raises the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses, while fostering good eating habits can help give your child energy, improve their mood and help to maintain a healthy weight. Trying to play catch up as an adult is hard — once we’re set in our ways, diet changes don’t come easily.

Starting off early with a balanced diet is key for a child. Consider this frightening statistic: one study found that 18-33% of infants and toddlers did not consume vegetables on a typical day. When they did consume vegetables, the most common one was french fries. That’s right, deep fried potatoes were the most common veggie for a good portion of infants and toddlers.

It can be difficult to feed toddlers when their appetites may come and go, or they may decide they suddenly dislike a certain food. If you’re stuck for what to feed your child, the Center for Disease Control has set standards for the diet of people who are age 2 or older.

This diet should include:

  • Whole grains
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fat-free and low fat dairy products
  • Foods rich in calcium, protein and fiber

How can I enforce good eating behaviors in my children?

As a parent, you can use these tips to help your child become an independent healthy eater:

  • Be a role model. Your child looks to you to model their behavior, which includes choosing what to eat. Regulating too much may cause your child to crave restricted foods more, or negative talk about a new food may cause anxiety when trying it. Practice the same eating habits you would want of your child. For instance, when a child sees a parent or caregiver eating new healthy foods and enjoying it, it can help to associate that positive reaction with the food.
  • Introduce and reintroduce new foods. There are several ideas about where babies and toddlers get their taste preferences — some say that it is from evolutionary safety precautions, others infer it is from the food the mother eats during pregnancy and breastfeeding. No matter the origin, we know for certain that children prefer sweet and salty tastes and typically dislike bitter and sour. This can be problematic for foods like vegetables, which often come with a bitter taste. Avoid creating a negative association with vegetables and encourage your children to try them often. Repeated reintroduction can help to develop a preference and acceptance for these foods.
  • Make mealtime a priority. Children thrive on routine. Being able to set aside time to talk to them and eat with them can do wonders to build your relationship. At Little Sunshine’s Playhouse®, this is something we stress. Our teachers sit with our students during meal times, engaging them in conversation. Not only does this allow for students to observe teachers eating new foods, it provides structure to the day and fosters the growth of their conversation skills.
  • Let them decide portions. It is important that children learn to self-regulate early, otherwise they may find themselves overeating often. Serve your dinner “family-style” and allow for your child to choose how much they want to eat. You can use this as an opportunity to teach about proper portions and which foods should be eaten more often.

If you are looking for a preschool that emphasizes early childhood nutrition, find a Little Sunshine’s Playhouse® location near you.

We offer a dedicated chef at each of our preschools that plans a healthy menu for our students each week, using the freshest ingredients and surpassing child nutrition guidelines.