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Expert: Kids Need Better Eating Behaviors

4 min read  |  September 01, 2022  | 

There are many reasons why a family may find themselves in my nutrition clinic, one of which may be due to having weight concerns or a child with obesity. As parents, we want to set up our children for their best future.

Hearing all the possible comorbidities that obesity can be related to in adulthood can be quite concerning. Here are some frequent questions that many families ask who have weight concerns. 

What kind of diet should my child be on? 

The truth is, no child (or adult) needs to follow a diet trend. These diets are often unsustainable and will make your child crave or want the foods you eliminate from their diet more.

The moment your child ends the diet will likely result in binging on the “forbidden foods,” weight gain, a poor relationship with foods, and a lifetime of yo-yo-dieting.

So the answer is that the right kind of diet for your child is one that feels natural, honors your familial cultural foods, and is ripe with variety in color and textures.

Can you make a meal plan of the foods my child should eat? 

Much like diets, meal plans don’t work. Meal plans are rigid, much like a diet, and make one feel bored or restricted. Instead of trying to follow a meal plan, try to follow general guidelines of how a plate should look.

Make sure a protein source is present and a carbohydrate source with generous amounts of fibrous vegetables. This will provide a balanced plate and sustained energy. 

How do I get my “picky-eater” to eat a vegetable? 

Some things are easier said than done. Eating at the end of the day is a behavior, not just a means to obtain energy. 

So like any behavior, eating vegetables regularly is something that must be learned. 

First, the parent’s role is to be a model for appropriate behavior, so these veggies should be on your plate too. As adults, we have had thousands of exposures to foods.

Remember that your child has substantially fewer exposures to foods and may take dozens of tries before trying or liking a food. Some children are highly averse to eating or trying a new vegetable. A trained specialist must help you rule out organic causes like non-IgE mediated allergies or sensory issues to prevent a traumatic experience. 

If a child gets to choose what food is served, when it’s served, or where it is served, it is time to break these unpleasant habits. 

What’s on the menu is on the menu; take it or leave it. 

As the parent, you decide what is served, when, and where, and the only thing the child needs to figure out is how much they will eat. This means if broccoli is what is for dinner, your picky eater must still have this on the plate, even if they do not want to eat it. This does not mean that they can choose after they finish the other foods that they want a favorite food.

Giving into likes and catering to individual family members is how picky eaters are created. 

Another way to create dramatic dining is to promise desserts as rewards for finishing a meal. Food should never be used as a reward; it actually teaches children to like or dislike certain foods more than others. It is best to incorporate dessert into dinner if that is a food you are planning to serve rather than have it be a prize.

In essence, you are placing the dessert on a pedestal, and once you have dessert on the same playing field or plate, you make it just another food. Within a few weeks, you will find that your child won’t be as drawn to over-indulging in these sweet treats. 

What is the amount of weight my child should lose? 

I often tell parents and children I am not interested in weight loss. Discussing weight is something that we will not be doing as it is psychologically harmful. We want to lose or get rid of poor behavioral choices and take small steps to get there. 

The focus is on behavioral change in a way that works best for the child and family. Teaching the parent and child to exemplify positive body image self-talk is key to getting in the right mindset. And parents need to know that they play an equal part in the child’s behavior change. 

Dieting behaviors and poor self-image are associated with a higher risk of eating disorders. So toss the scale and fixation with numbers. 


Christy Gardner, pediatric nutrition

Written by Christy Gardner, M.S., RD, LD/N
Clinical dietitian at the University of Miami Health System

Tags: BMI, body mass index, Christy Gardner, healthy eating, healthy weight, kids and food, obesity in children, risk of obesity

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