Studies have continuously shown that helping children to develop good eating habits early in life has many benefits and is well worth the extra effort.
Developing positive attitudes and eating habits with food can benefit children’s mental health and can start them on the path toward having a positive body image.
Nourishing our children with good nutrition is also one of the best ways to prevent childhood and adulthood obesity, one of the most devastating and prevalent chronic conditions in our country, with approximately 25 per cent of Australian children classified as obese (1).
So what is important when it comes to establishing good early eating habits?
4 things to consider when establishing good early eating habits
1. Food associations
Children can begin making associations with food before they even develop the concept of healthy eating.
A recent 2014 study found that children aged between 3-5 years old had a greater knowledge of unhealthy food brands compared to healthy ones. Their knowledge of unhealthy food brands was also significantly related to their parents eating habits and television viewing (2).
This finding is important as it shows that children can make associations with food through, the more exposure, particularly when it is deemed positive, the stronger the connection. Children will develop associations with food in ways other than food marketing, like enjoying food with family, or associating food with an occasion eg. a party or a fun event. Everything that is put in the environment around them will change and shape how they view food. In addition, children will also have a tendency to keep memories of food as they grow up, reinforcing the importance of establishing positive food associations early in life.
2. Food preferences
Children will often have food preferences for food that is familiar to them. So taking the time to introduce new foods to children is important in their first few years of life. The more exposure they get to different fruits, vegetables and cuisines, the better. New foods can be disguised in other foods they like (e.g. sweet potato brownies) or they can be openly introduced to them.
3. Food as a reward/punishment
If you find that you are using food as a reward or punishment often, make a goal to decrease (and eventually stop) the number of times you do it. The reason for this is that it weakens the healthy eating habits that you are trying to teach them. They start to form unhealthy and often unhelpful associations to food, because rather than food being represented as something to nourish and fuel it becomes a tool for control, manipulation or influence. It encourages them to eat, even when they are full, and this interferes with their ability to regulate their eating and hunger. Rewarding children with sweets and unhealthy items can also affect their nutrition and can lead to them overeating on these types of foods just because they have done something ‘good’ that day. As an alternative, find other things to motivate your children with (e.g. activities they like, cuddles, and even reward charts with a non-food gift or reward they can work for).
4. Sugar, fat and salt are reinforcing
The more that children are exposed to items containing a lot of sugar, fat and salt, the more they will want and crave these foods (3).
It is a good idea to talk to your child about the importance of eating in moderation – how there are foods that are good for us and some foods that do not provide us with anything that our body needs. Talking to them about the importance of looking after their body and keeping it healthy can create positive messages that they can remember and carry with throughout adulthood.
 Better Health Channel. (2015). Obesity in children – causes.
 Tatlow-Golden, M., Hennessy, E., Dean, M., & Hollywood, L. (2014). Young children’s food brand knowledge. Early development and associations with television viewing and parent’s diet. Appetite, 80: 197-203.
 Kessler, D. (2009). The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Rodale, New York.