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Teaching Children to be Healthy

By Dr Louisa Hoey

Helping your kids to be healthy

Parents often consult me when they are worried about their children and their eating.  It is easy to be worried and feel overwhelmed but you can have a huge influence on your children and their eating habits.  Following are some tips and strategies that I have gathered in my 10 years of clinical practice as a psychologist. Some of them might work, some might not. Give them a go with an open mind and see what happens.  Lets start teaching children to be healthy.

Eat dinner together

There are many wonderful reasons that we should all be eating together with our children. It provides an excellent opportunity to model healthy eating. Young children learn from their parents. Therefore, if they see you making healthy food choices they are more likely to make healthy choices for themselves. Be consistent and don’t expect it to happen right away.

Turning the television off is a great thing to do as much as you can. This will help you and your children to be able to eat mindfully. That being said, don’t beat yourself up if every now and then if you use it to help you get through dinner time!

Dinner time together is a fantastic opportunity to talk and build relationships with your children. Especially as they grow and become busier with increasing school, extra-curricular and social demands, meal times is a time to pause and come together and connect. These bonds will last a lifetime.

Provide children with healthy choices and let them decide

If you are finding yourself in a tug of war with your children about eating, I recommend dropping the rope. Your role is to provide your children with healthy, nutritious options. It is their role to choose what they want to eat and how much.

Consider where you are at with your child behaviourally and how much they need to change. If they are fussy, make small changes now and build on them over time. Get to know the sorts of foods your child will like and slowly help to stretch them out of their comfort zones. Psychologists call is ‘graduated exposure’ and this technique can help your children to gradually increase their confidence in trying new things.

Don’t force them to eat things with textures you know they find too difficult (e.g., tomatoes or roasted pumpkin is commonly hard for children) but expose them to new foods that you are confident that they will enjoy. If they like carrots add one or two sticks of purple carrots which have the same texture and virtually the same taste. Put in there repeatedly even if they don’t eat it. Encourage them to try it but leave the decision up to them. If they taste it PRAISE them.

Ensure that healthy options are readily available: the fruit bowl in easy reach, veggie sticks prepared with tasty dips in the fridge.

Involve them in shopping and cooking

Find a fruit and veg shop that has child-sized trolleys and get them involved in shopping. Come home and let them help prepare the meals. My daughter is never more proud of herself than after she has completed making chicken nuggets (chicken dipped in mayo and then rolled in bread crumbs) for the family. Giving children autonomy and making shopping and cooking fun will help them to try new healthy options.

Be conscious of labelling

I always recommend that parents are careful about how they talk about their children: to them or to others. I would avoid saying things like “she is so fussy” or “she hates vegetables”. Instead, try to turn it around. Let’s say you have some good success with the graduated exposure and your child is trying new foods say something like “you are really good at trying new foods, I am so proud of you”. Even if you think it is a small step, they will likely thrive off the positive attention and keep looking for more.

Finish your dessert before your dinner!

Some parents like to offer dinner and ‘dessert’ options (fresh fuit/yogurt etc) together as part of the meal so that they don’t get into a battle over “you must eat your dinner before your dessert”.  If it means that your children get a good balanced diet…go for it! On the topic of dessert – some families like to have something for dessert afterwards and some don’t. There are no rules. If you are a dessert family, opt for fruit – lovely and sweet and full of fibre.

School lunches are a great opportunity

Challenge yourself to pack a school lunch for your child that has no packaging. This will help you stick to unprocessed foods which are a danger-zone for sugar and salt. Substitute packaged options they like (e.g., Yogurt pouches) for healthier home make options (full fat natural yoghurt with stewed fruit and a dash of honey).  Again, make small changes and build on them rather than making drastic changes that will frustrate and start a battle with your little ones.

Most importantly

Be patient with the journey and show yourself and your children compassion.  Make small changes and celebrate successes. Young children especially are desperate to earn your approval; they want to make you happy. So when you see them making healthy choices – make a fuss with your attention! Psychologists call it positive reinforcement and it tends to increase the chances that your child will do the same thing another time. It will also do wonders for the bond with your child.

About the Author

Dr Louisa Hoey is a health psychologist.  She is the Director of the Health Psychology Centre. Louisa specialises in the psychological aspects of food, the emotional relationships around food and the development of strategies to a happier more fuller life.

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