Encourage Healthy Eating Habits

Healthy eating is essential to a child's well-being. Children who are overweight are at risk for chronic health problems. The Weight-control Information Network (WIN), a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), offers guidance to parents and caregivers on how to encourage healthy eating habits in children. Program staff can find more information to support families in the Healthy Active Living section of the ECLKC.

Tips for families to help children eat healthy

  • Eat breakfast every day. Skipping breakfast can leave your child hungry, tired, and looking for less healthy foods later in the day.
  • Plan healthy meals and eat together as a family. Eating together at meal times helps children learn to enjoy a variety of foods.
  • Buy and serve more fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, or canned). Let your child choose them at the store.
  • Buy fewer soft drinks and high fat/high calorie snack foods like chips, cookies, and candy. These snacks are OK once in a while, but keep healthy snack foods on hand too and offer them to your child more often.
  • Start with small servings and let your child ask for more if he or she is still hungry. It is up to you to provide your child with healthy meals and snacks, but your child should be allowed to choose how much food he or she will eat. One tablespoon per year of age for each component of the meal is a great place to start when considering serving sizes for young children.
  • Offer your child water or low-fat milk more often than fruit juice. Fruit juice is a healthy choice but is high in calories.
  • Eat fast food less often. When you visit a fast food restaurant, try the healthful options offered.
  • Do not get discouraged if your child will not eat a new food the first time it is served. Some kids will need to have a new food served to them 10 times or more before they will eat it.
  • Try not to use food as a reward when encouraging kids to eat. Promising dessert to a child for eating vegetables, for example, sends the message that vegetables are less valuable than dessert.
  • Make healthy choices easy by putting nutritious foods where they are easy to see and keep high-calorie foods out of sight.

Healthy Snack Ideas

  • Fresh or frozen fruit, or fruit canned in juice or light syrup
  • Small amounts of dried fruits such as raisins, apple rings, or apricots
  • Fresh vegetables such as baby carrots, cucumber, squash, zucchini, or tomatoes
  • Reduced fat cheese or a small amount of peanut butter on whole-wheat crackers
  • Low-fat yogurt with fruit
  • Graham crackers, animal crackers, baked pretzels, or low-fat vanilla wafers

The 5-2-1-0 Message Provides Suggestions for Building Healthy, Active Lives

  • Eat at least 5 fruits and vegetables a day.
  • Keep screen time (like TV, video games, computer) down to 2 hours or less per day.
  • Get 1 hour or more of physical activity every day.
  • Drink 0 sugar-sweetened drinks. Replace soda pop, sports drinks, and even 100 percent fruit juice with milk or water.

Be Supportive

Throughout any process or program that you undertake to address your child's eating habits, be supportive. Help your child set specific goals and track his or her progress. Reward successes with praise and hugs. Be positive.

Tell your child that he or she is loved, special, and important. Children's feelings about themselves are often based on how they think their parents and other caregivers feel about them. Children need compassion, understanding, and encouragement from caring adults.

Note: Foods that are small, round, sticky, or hard to chew, such as raisins, whole grapes, hard vegetables, hard chunks of cheese, nuts, seeds, and popcorn can cause choking in children under age 4. You can still prepare some of these foods for young children, for example, by cutting grapes into small pieces and cooking and cutting up vegetables. Children should always be supervised during meals and snacks.

Encourage Healthy Eating Habits. HHS/NIH/NIDDK. 2013. English.

Last Reviewed: October 2015

Last Updated: October 13, 2015