Build Healthy Habits Early REPLAY – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 33

Building healthy eating habits begins at an early age. Listen to this episode with Rachel Robertson and Ruth Fidino, as they discuss simple and effective ways to guide your child in a nutritious direction.

Healthy eating is an important part of your child’s development. Nutrition impacts energy and brain function, so building healthy habits early on is key. But high cost and low availability of some foods, busy schedules, and picky eaters can throw a wrench in your healthy plans. Take another listen to this episode as Rachel Robertson and Ruth Fidino discuss how to make make healthy eating fun, easy, and accessible.


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Resources: Build Healthy Habits Early


Rachel: Hi, Ruth. I am looking forward to another really good conversation with you about early development.

Ruth: Yeah, me too. And I think that's something that I still work on almost every day. And I think maybe we just expect children to have healthier habits naturally because they haven't really had time to build unhealthy habits.

Rachel: Yeah, that's true, that's a fair point. And this domain, like all other aspects of development, is shaped by both how the environment and the adults impact children. So by nurture, but then also by genetics and nature as well.

Ruth: You just said, “this domain”? And I don't think that's a term families usually use. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Rachel: Yeah, sure. Domains of development are sort of like categories. So there are really three primary domains of development: cognitive, social-emotional, and physical.

Ruth: Like mind, body, and soul, huh?

Rachel: Yeah, that's a good way to look at it. And then, of course, they can be broken down further. Sometimes language and literacy is considered its own domain, or part of the cognitive domain, approaches to learning, and that's all about how you learn, how you approach, gaining new information, executive function. Those are all part of cognitive development. Social and emotional are actually two separate things, but they're so interdependent that they're usually together in a domain. And physical development is small motor, large motor, but also everything else that goes with wellness, like nutrition.

Ruth: So when we're talking about healthy habits, we're really in that physical domain then?

Rachel: Right. And specifically focused on the aspects that are related to health and wellness, not so much about motor control.

Ruth: Okay, that makes sense. And health and wellness seem to be just sort of, I don't know, woven into daily life, and I'm gonna guess that some listeners might not focus on health and wellness as an area of development for their child, but more of a daily need that sometimes, frankly, can create a bit of a struggle. Many of us think about academic development and probably social and emotional development for our kids. It's pretty good to intentionally consider health and wellness as an area of development.

Rachel: I think you're on to some good ideas there. Because eating, you're right, eating and physical activity habits are woven into the day-to-day of family and community life. They happen whether or not you're specifically as an adult, specifically, focused on developing habits and children's growth in those domains, they're going to just happen. But that's where this nurture part comes in. And when we're more conscious about it, we can have such a positive lifelong impact on children's health and wellness. Not only does this benefit a child's chances of better health, but it actually influences their development in all of those other domains.

Ruth: Oh, that's really interesting. Tell us a little bit more about how healthy habits can influence other types of development.

Rachel: Okay, I will do that, but I feel compelled to get one thing out of the way before I get into that.

Ruth: Well, it sounds like a true confession is on the way, Rachel.

Rachel: Yeah. So whenever I talk about this topic, and I've written about this topic, people start to make assumptions that I am perfect at it, and feel like maybe I'm making judgments, I've had people start telling me about their diets and how they're eating vegetables, like I'm judging that all the time. So I feel it's important to say, I'm not perfect at this, I continue to learn how to support my own health and wellness, as well as my children. I don't want anyone listening to feel like this is about preaching or being unrealistic. What I do want people to do is to learn why it's important, and to just be intentional about the health, and wellness, and nutrition choices in children's lives. Considering diet overall, not just a single meal at a time, you know, I understand why I crave sugar, I understand why I like that dark chocolate, and that helps me make conscious decisions about it. Sometimes it is, I'm gonna have this, but it's not just happening to me or happening to my child. So I am focused on it in a different way when I have the facts and information, and that's what's important, not being perfect.

Ruth: I am so glad you said that because I shudder when I think of eating a really perfect diet. And now, Rachel, I can admit that we have eaten truffle fries together at 10:00 at night.

Rachel: Yes, we have. I also say there's a lot of information on what you should eat organic, and GMOs, and specific diets like vegan and paleo, and we are not gonna get into those things here. That is a family choice, very individual and personal, and we're not taking a stand on those things today. We're just talking about how nutrition and healthy habits affect development. So back to your question, you asked about how physical wellness, and health, and nutrition affect development in other domains. So I'll say that when we separate development into individual domains, it's really a fall separation because it is all happening cohesively. If you think of a child learning how to write, per se, they're using motor control, they're using fine motor skills to learn how to write, they are using cognitive development for that language development, they're using social-emotional skills to control their emotions and impulses. So it's all working together. It's all happening in the same person, in the same body. So, not having good nutrition impacts energy and brain function. If children don't after day don't have a really healthy start to their day, nutritionally, it is affecting how they're doing in school. It can even influence social interactions, how they feel about learning, even something that feels kind of small, like I was just saying, like a breakfast, usually you're running out the door, and you're just doing like toaster waffles every day, that can really hinder brain function and behavior. Things like remembering, concentrating, kids that are overly energetic or overly tired, all of that can be affected by nutrition.

Ruth: That's really an attention-getting statement. I'm thinking about typical daily schedule for families. And they're often eating on the run and making quick decisions about breakfast, with the intention of starting the child's day off right and not realizing that they may be really starting it off not so right.

Rachel: And none of this is intentional. There's just so many reasons nutrition and healthy habits have declined. Our schedules, like you were just saying, parents are busy, we're kind of built into our life that we're going to be able to get food quickly. We don't sit down and enjoy meals the same way we used to. Our schedules interfere with our ability to be healthy and make good nutrition choices a lot of the time. But it's not just schedule. So, when it comes to food, cost is a big issue. Healthy food is often more costly. There's something called food deserts, where there's availability issues, there's a lot of places in this country that it's really hard to get a lot of healthy food, that makes it really challenging. So, it's no wonder people are making decisions, or they're trying to make the best decisions when not a lot of great ones are available to them. So we've built our lives around this convenience factor, and not so much about what's healthiest for us.

Ruth: So Rachel, is there any good news about this?

Rachel: Yes, absolutely. We were looking at some pretty dismal statistics a decade or more ago. We were getting reports that even life expectancy was going down, and that was a first generation, it was happening too that was gonna have lower life expectancy than their parents. The military was publishing reports worrying about the future that they would not even have enough recruits because of health issues. And those statistics are turning around, not quickly, but we're not going backwards anymore. So that's good news. We've made a big difference with some of the national and even just local efforts and awareness and education. We are going in the right direction.

Ruth: At Bright Horizons, we're involved with Partnership for a Healthier America, really, in an effort to improve the nutritional value of what children are eating when they're with us.

Rachel: Yes, it's very important to us, because we certainly recognize that nutrition is a part of overall child development. And we've made a lot of commitments about how we can go from where we've been and a pretty good place to making it even better. And we've worked with Partnership for a Healthier America, who is a nonpartisan organization that focuses on work with all different kinds of partners, from builders to food distributors, to hotels even, and then to people like us, to educators. As early educators, we recognize that most research tells us that early prevention and intervention are much more effective than adult interventions. I mean, this means that teaching healthy food preferences to a toddler is much easier than getting an adult to like vegetables who hasn't really had a vegetable-rich diet before. And I think we know that intuitively, but we take that pretty seriously at Bright Horizons knowing we have this great opportunity to support that in young children.

Ruth: So Rachel, aren't toddlers really kind of known for being picky, though? I think a lot of times parents are just happy to get their kids to eat something, really anything.

Rachel: Yes, I've seen that, that scenario play out multiple times in many different places. There are a lot of reasons for that. Some are related to preferences and palate, and some are just about a toddler's stage of development. Most of it is about a toddler's stage of development. They're just kind of dabbling with this idea that they have some control in life. And they're trying to experiment with that, figuring out what they like, what they have power over, and they're also what I think is pretty cool is they're starting to be able to express and feel different kinds of emotions. So, like that disgust emotion is new to toddlers, and they're ready to use it when you put like maybe cooked carrots in front of them. I think it is notable to say that picky eating is more predominant now than it ever has been, so we should think about why. And in previous generations, picky eating hasn't been as prevalent. And it is also more prevalent in wealthier countries and households. So this is just pun intended food for thought about why that happens. It's not always about the child really not liking the food.

Ruth: Well, that's really interesting about the previous generations and picky eating being in wealthier countries and households. So is picky eating caused by both nature and nurture then?

Rachel: Yes. So that's the general consensus. Nutrition science continues to evolve, of course, and we're learning more and more, and we will adapt as educators and as community members to the new research, but right now, the thinking is that we're all born with preferences, and there's a certain aspect of nature to this, but that the early food experiences you have from infancy, and actually, even during pregnancy, develop later food preferences and choices, and even things like how adults react to food, what they say about food, how you eat, when you eat, all of those things have an impact on children's feelings about different kinds of food. I do wanna just recognize that, yes, there are some actual very real situations where children struggle with being very selective eaters. And then sometimes they can need medical intervention, and they have...maybe they have texture issues, or there's some kind of medical thing going on. And so, I don't wanna discount that that can happen. But I do wanna continue to stress that most particular eating can be prevented.

Ruth: Oh, now you have us all really listening at the edge of our seat. Tell us how we prevent picky eating.

Rachel: To put it very simply, and again, recognize that this is a real struggle a lot of parents have, being particular about what you eat at the very core of it is a privilege. And I don't mean being spoiled, I mean, it only happens when you have been given a lot of options. If you don't know about those options, or you haven't been exposed to them, or your palate hasn't developed, like if you haven't been eating macaroni and cheese over and over, your palate isn't developing a taste for that. But if you have, then you are starting to develop a taste for that. So if things are happening at home, like you're making different meals for the kids, then that's influencing how their palate and their preferences are developing.

Ruth: This is a real struggle for parents. So give us some really practical tips for how to handle this, Rachel.

Rachel: Okay, so there's some really easy things you can do. And, of course, just like I said earlier, if you do it before a problem starts, it's always easier than if you're doing it when a problem starts, but if you're already having issues with this, you can still try to diminish it faster, or at least make it less prevalent. So, my first tip is really thinking about building a child's palate from the start. You do not need to make your own baby food to get this right. But, certainly, avoid the trap of things like desserts for babies and children. They don't need that. They don't even know it exists, unless you expose it to them. There's no reason to be giving young children things that we know are unhealthy. There's no early need for them to have like potato chips, or ice cream, or soda. It's better to spend the time when they're younger, introducing them to a wide range of healthy flavors, even things that you as an adult don't like, and make sure you don't tell them that, but just expose them to things, and almost like anything else you wanna learn what they like and what they'll be interested in. So they should have a lot of options.

Ruth: A wide range of healthy flavors is a great idea. And there are lots of foods from different cultures that, if given the opportunity, kids will really eat them, and hummus is one of those foods, I've seen so many kids at our centers eating hummus. I will share that beets are my least favorite food on the earth. And it really never occurred to me to give my kids beets. They weren't in our cupboard, and I guess I may have shortchanged them, but they do like beets as adults, and I still don't.

Rachel: It's okay to not like something, everybody has that. Kids should be able to say they don't like something as well. That's fair. And that makes that easier to get them to eat other things if they get to exert some control and have some preferences. My example is tomatoes. I never liked tomatoes and I never wanted to be someone who didn't like tomatoes. So I made sure I gave them to my kids when they were young. I kind of did the opposite, because I didn't know why I didn't like them, but I just wanted to make sure that they did like them. So, why not, give them things, whether you like them or not yourself, and don't make a face, don't plug your nose, don't like wait in anticipation to see if they're gonna like it or not. Think of it almost like you're offering them a variety of choices, and they're letting you know what they like, what their preferences are without any of your influence, like picking out a new pair of pants.

Ruth: What about mealtimes, Rachel? At our centers we do family-style dining, where teachers eat with the kids, and foods are passed around the table, and children serve themselves, and there's lovely table conversation. And it's really a lovely part of the child's day. But it seems to me that fewer meals are eaten at a family table than ever before.

Rachel: I mean, that's truly a healthy eating habit to sit down together, to have it be an experience, rather than something to rush through. Another thing that we should do is this natural instinct that we have to tell us when we're full. But it takes a little bit for our bodies to know that and to send us that signal, so when we eat really fast, you know, when you get that feeling like, "Oh, I can't believe I ate so much," your body's ability to tell you you're full couldn't keep up with you. But when children are allowed the time to have a meal, to sit down, to have a conversation, and then they really are...they can identify when they're full, and then they should also be given the opportunity to say they're full, and not have to clean a plate. Having rules or having punishment around healthy food can also cause poor healthy eating habits, and cause some of that what feels like particular eating or picky eating because children feel like they're forced and they don't have a lot of choices. So that mealtime, having it be an enjoyable experience can help minimize challenges with those two things. I'll just say a little bit more about that comment I made about you don't wanna tell children they have to clean their plate. So this is all from good intentions, right? We want children to eat as much as we give them, we don't want them wasting food, we want them to try everything on their plate. So the challenge with that is that you are telling children to eat more than maybe they need or their bodies are telling them that they want. One of the ways that you can handle this is ask them to put on their plate what they will eat, or that you make some choices, and they make some choices, or you talk about how many bites of different things they're going to have, or you just start with what you're requiring, or don't say it's required of you at this, but you know in your head, you start with what you wanna make sure that they're going to eat rather than give them a lot, and then they have to eat all of that. You should also help them eat when they're hungry. So, as much as you can as minimize the snacking, that's not about when you're hungry, but a lot of snacking happens when you're bored. So, making sure that eating is happening when children are hungry and asking them those feelings, "Are you hungry? Are you full?" So making sure that they're clued into their body's cues about food and nutrition and hunger.

Ruth: Yeah, that's great to be bringing up those conversations and having them understand that it's a decision that they can make about whether to eat, or whether to have some water, or whether they're just go back and play. Another way that I've found to increase the variety of what kids will eat is to involve them in either the preparation of food, or in gardening. My grandkids know that when we all go out to the garden together, they can eat whatever they want when we're out there together. They can pick whatever they want off of there and eat it. And my granddaughters have even started playing restaurant out there, like one will be on one side of the raised bed and a couple kids on the other side, and they order at the window, and parsley goes on, everything, and it's really a fun place to play. And they're eating raw snap peas, and parsley, and lettuces, and all kinds of things while they're playing in the garden.

Rachel: It's such a good way for children to learn about food and nutrition. So they're learning about things that...some of those things that you just mentioned have nothing to do with them actually eating the food, it's about cooking it, and preparing it, and harvesting it, and growing it, so all good things that connect children to the food that they're eating. And then, that's another really great way to get children to try new things, is do it away from the table, do it away from a mealtime. There's just some extra pressure, and most of it has been put on children by, "We only have this much time to eat," or, "You have to clean your plate," or, "We're all eating together, so this is the time you need to eat." So you take away all that pressure when children are doing something, like you explained, like playing a dramatic play, restaurant experience, or doing a cooking project with a family member, or outside gardening, perfect time for children to learn about nutrition and taste test. So that's another suggestion I'd make, is if you have children that you wanna expose to different foods, to something like all the different colors and kinds of tomatoes, and that sort of has been good for me, right, and then try them, and it's not about hunger at that point, it's not about you need to eat this, this is about finding your favorite and trying a lot of different things. It's a great way to introduce new things to children. Let them pick some things out at the grocery store. One of the things we used to do is a new fruit every time we went to the grocery store, and we tried all sorts of crazy stuff, and some of it nobody liked, and some of it one person liked, but we were always trying something different. And it was fun for them to pick it out.

Ruth: So Rachel, another place that families really struggle is when they're going to events, birthday parties, some community event where there's going to be food, how do we handle that?

Rachel: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, you think about a classroom and you have 20, 30 kids, and everyone brings treats for their birthday, and special events, you're having treats on a pretty regular basis. I think one of the things is to disconnect sugary treats from celebrations. Food is certainly a big part of celebrations in many cultures. And so, I certainly am not recommending disconnecting that. But, usually, that's more the meal, and the community, and the whole cooking, and the whole part of it, it's not just here's a store-bought treat. So we can do some disconnecting of that. You can't always influence what other people are going to do, but for your own events, for things like packing school lunches and celebrating your own child's events, try to think outside that proverbial box and think about healthier treats, think...a cooking project. For my kids, we always did a cooking project for their birthday. So they were excited about that. Different kinds of smoothies. We did like fruit pizzas or one time we made dips and hummus. Kids love dipping things. So trying to think of ways that you can have it be fun and interesting, but not all about just desserts and treats.

Ruth: Fabulous. This has been a really great conversation, Rachel. And I've learned a lot, and now I'm also really hungry.

Rachel: Same. And I'm just really hopeful that parents, listeners are walking away feeling a little bit more equipped, informed, and inspired to approach early nutrition and eating habits as an opportunity for early childhood development, to do it in a way that considers lifelong development and health, not just getting through that moment. But at the same time, I hope nobody's walking away feeling terrible, if a treat, or two, or a dinner out makes it into the weekly routine, it certainly does at my house. To really just look at the overall approach to nutrition and healthy habits. And, you know, if there's a change that needs to be made, to tackle it one or two things at a time, so it really sticks, so it does truly become a habit, not something you're forcing yourself to do that you're gonna change it out for something different the next month. And get the whole family involved, get everyone participating and thinking about nutrition as really just an important part of overall development.

About the Speakers

A photo of Rachel Robertson, Vice President of Education and Development at Bright Horizons.

Rachel is Vice President of Education and Development at Bright Horizons. She leads the education, curriculum, and field learning & development teams, and hosts the parenting podcast, Teach, Play, Love: Parenting Advice for the Early Years.

Ruth Fidino

Ruth Fidino began her career in parent education 30 years ago at Pierce College in Tacoma, Washington as a parent education instructor, facilitating both group and individual parenting sessions. At Bright Horizons, she continued her work with families and crafted our first parent workshops that were delivered by center directors. Ruth also been a frequent contributor on the podcast series, “Teach. Play. Love. Parenting for the Early Years” as well as family webinars. She is also an experienced facilitator who involves the audience in the process of developing practical solutions that will work for them. Through the experience of raising her own children and now the joy of grandchildren, Ruth has discovered that one of the most important ingredients of parenting is to be open to discussion of new ideas and approaches.