What influences are there on a child’s eating patterns and diet? While infants and babies are a captive audience solely reliant on parents and caregivers for their nutrition, and toddlers are so enamoured with parents that they will mimic and model themselves after them, school age children and especially adolescents are a different story. They are not only susceptible to peer pressure and advertising, as well as tending to go through a phase of rebellion against parents, they are also actively targeted by food companies. Parents are one (and often not a very popular one) source of information and guidance. Further, as teenagers begin to take on part time jobs, they have a disposable income, which means they are no longer relying on their parents to pay for their food. Coupled with their increasing independence, parents begin to lose control and influence over food choices. This is why it is so important to establish healthy eating habits and patterns early in life. It is difficult trying to convert an adolescent from a lifelong poor diet to a healthy diet.

Like a lot of early behaviours, children learn how to eat, what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat. They learn what is safe to eat and not, what is palatable and not based on their immediate surroundings – the family home. Culture, family habits, role-models, available and supplied foods, family etiquette around food all influence what children learn to be acceptable ways of eating. This is challenged when they enter kindergarten or school and are surrounded by peers who likely have different cultural norms regarding food, different food supplied to them and different habits about eating that have developed through their interactions and observations of their family and care-givers. In some situations, children may find they are the odd one out in terms of eating habits, and without strong role-models at home, or a good basic understanding of foods and nutrition, they may start to re-learn new, less appropriate eating habits and preferences that challenge those parents have worked to establish during their first years.

Parents may combat this by ensuring they provide fun, educational activities to develop children’s understanding of nutrition and food choices. Cooking together, talking, telling stories with positive nutritional morals or principles, going shopping together can all involve children and help them feel empowered and knowledgeable about food and their bodies. Parents may also seek out kindergartens and schools that supply a standard healthy lunch for all students, or who offer for sale only healthy lunch and snack options and drinks. In some countries, including Australia, governments are bringing in legislation to regulate the sale of junk food in school canteens and some private kindergartens and schools may set restrictions on foods allowed into the school to try and encourage healthy lunch boxes.

Some children will not be brought up in homes that promote or encourage healthy eating, whether through carelessness, or more likely, a simple lack of nutritional knowledge. Parents need to ensure that children are aware of the problems associated with poor nutrition, like obesity, but don’t look negatively upon friends and other classmates who suffer such conditions. Information presented to children should be framed positively. For example, eating fruits and vegetables will give you the energy to play with your friends, rather than eating junk food will make you fat and you’ll get worn out too quickly to be any good at games.

Teaching Healthy Eating Habits to Children

  • Give children activities and fun, interactive learning experiences that promote positive nutritional habits and attitudes toward foods.
  • Educate children about the need for healthy foods to help them grow and develop and have the energy to enjoy physical activities (games, sports etc)
  • Set a good example. Don’t single children out, when family habits are not good, everyone should make a change, not just the children.
  • Try to surround children with other role-models and sources of good nutritional information by selecting care-givers, kindergartens and schools that actively promote and encourage healthy eating and/or who have staff educated in childhood nutrition.
  • Promote good nutrition with the care-givers and family members your child associates with. Provide them with information and be frank about what you do and don’t want your child to be fed when you are not around.
  • Listen to children and try to make healthy eating and healthy meals that they enjoy. Consider colour, presentation, smell and taste of dishes, and take children’s (healthy) preferences into account. If they like a particular vegetable, try to include it, or use it more often than less preferred vegetables.
  • Try not to use food as a reward or to comfort a child.
Learn more on Children's Nutrition with ACS.