As a parent, there’s so much to worry about when it comes to the health and wellness of your children. There are trips to the dentist and pediatrician, sports teams, play dates, and so much more. In today’s article, I’ll help you learn how to help kids develop healthy eating habits for life — and talk about why it’s so important.

Start early

A lifetime of enjoying healthy and nutritious food starts early.

Did you know that on any given day, nearly 30% of 3-year old kids don’t eat ANY vegetables? Sounds unbelievable, right? But it’s true! The sooner you start introducing children to a variety of healthy and nourishing foods, the more likely they’ll build habits that will last a lifetime.

So, what is in a healthy diet?

What a great question this is. I love talking with my patients about the foods they eat and helping them to make smart choices for their health. A healthy diet is one that’s rich in nutritious vegetables and very low in processed and sugary foods. To get an idea of the kinds of healthy foods we’re talking about, take a look at the list below:

  • Almonds, Pecans, and Cashews – Nuts are high in protein and make a great snack
  • Leafy Greens – Kale, collards, spinach are all nutritious and filling
  • Unsweetened Tea and Coffee – When enjoying iced tea or coffee in the summer, use a straw to sip. This helps minimize stains on your teeth!
  • Whole Fruit – Apples, pineapples, melons, and pears are all fibrous fruits that make a great snack
  • Tomatoes and Carrots – Rich in antioxidants and vitamins
  • Chicken, Tofu, and Tempeh – Great low-fat protein sources

Remember, this isn’t an exhaustive list. There are thousands of amazing and healthy fruits, vegetables, and sources of protein in the world. It’s up to you to discover them and share them with your children.

What foods should my family avoid?

This one’s simple. Foods that are sugary, sticky, extremely hard, very acidic, and highly processed should never be mainstays in your healthy diet. Some of the foods to avoid are obvious — like soda and candy bars. But there are other sneakily unhealthy foods that are bad for your teeth and whole body health. For example, did you know you should avoid:

  • Raisins – Extremely sticky and packed with sugar, any dried fruit can stick to your kids’ teeth leading to cavities and other health problems
  • Dairy products – Many dairy products, like yogurt, are loaded with added sugar and are highly acidic
  • Sweet coffee drinks – Starbucks Frappuccinos and lattes from the local coffee shop are surprisingly sugary and acidic
  • Gatorade and sports drinks – Kids may think they need these after they exercise but these sweet drinks are bad for their teeth
  • Fruit juices – Often thought of as a “healthy” alternative to soda, nothing could be further from the truth as fruit juice is sugary and doesn’t contain the fiber found in whole fruit

Learn more about foods to avoid.

Set a good example

Who do your kids look to when making decisions about their food choices? You! It’s up to you as a parent to set a good example to help your kids develop healthy eating habits. If you’re eating fast food and drinking soda all the time, how can you expect your kids to make smart choices for themselves? If you’re only eating veggies at dinner do you think your kids will enjoy vegetables for snacks or reach for a candy bar?

So think deeply about the food choices you make. Your kids look to you to set a good example!

Create (and stick to) a meal plan

When you get home from work at the end of the day, you have to make sure the kids are doing their homework and maybe finish up some work of your own, so planning and cooking a healthy meal is the last thing on your mind.

The best way to make healthy eating easy is to create a meal plan for your family and stick to it. Look for dishes that can be prepared in advance. Meal prep can make for a great family activity, too!

Resources to help you get started:

Make snacking fun and healthy!

Kids need lots of energy to grow and be healthy and active. You need to make sure they have healthy snacks for between meals, too. Snacks should be whole-foods, not processed packaged treats.

A few of my favorites are:

  • Homemade granola to avoid the excess sugar of store-bought granola
  • Almond, cashew, and peanut butter
  • Sliced organic fruit
  • Crunchy veggies like carrots or celery with hummus

Give gardening a try

Many kids have no idea where their food comes from. You can help them become an active participant in their diet by gardening at home, joining a community garden, or even just growing herbs in your windowsill. Gardening is a great family activity, a fun way to be active, and best of all your kids will see (and taste) the fruits of their labor.

Kids will just love eating the veggies they grow themselves!

Encourage exploration and adventure

San Francisco is such a fantastic city with many amazing and healthy food options. From farmers markets to healthy restaurants, there’s so many great options available. Explore the city and help your kids discover new healthy foods they’ll love!

Make exceptions

Nobody’s perfect! It’s OK to have a few pieces of candy on Halloween — just don’t keep munching on sweets for days on end. Let your kid have a piece of cake at a birthday party or an ice cream sandwich on Fisherman’s Wharf. A healthy diet can include occasional treats. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

Just do your best

Stock your home with healthy foods. Plan nutritious meals. Eat whole foods and avoid processed garbage. Enjoy a treat now and again. That’s all it takes to help kids develop healthy eating habits.