Raise healthy eaters—Part 2: Age-specific tips

Children need guidance from their parents about eating a well-balanced diet. As they grow, your interactions with them around food will change. They’ll take on more responsibility for feeding themselves too. Still, you’ll continue to influence their eating preferences through the foods you prepare and offer to them. Read on for age-specific tips to encourage your kids’ healthy eating too. And if you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to read Part 1 about general nutrition tips for helping your children learn how to be “healthy eaters” at all ages.

Ages 2–5:

  • Start early teaching young children to eat a variety of foods just like you’d teach them to tie their shoes. Try saying, “See what you think of this new dish.” Or ask, “I really enjoy kale; you might like it too. Would you like to taste it?”
  • Ask little ones to help. They can stir a pot, measure and add ingredients to a bowl, or even tear lettuce.

Ages 6–11:

  • Let kids access healthy foods on their own. Not allowing them to have foods and snacks can backfire. Encourage your kids to make healthy choices instead. Place berries on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator. And store healthy snacks in cabinets your kids can access.
  • Encourage kids to be comfortable with their bodies. As kids make their way through middle childhood, they can grow more self-conscious as their bodies change.
  • Ask school-age kids to help. Older kids can be great assistants and sous-chefs, while younger ones can peel, stir, and spread. And as they learn, they can choose and prepare dishes solo with some supervision.
  • If your child expresses not liking a food, take his or her word for it. It’s likely your children will be finicky at times, especially when it comes to trying new foods. Continue offering new foods paired with familiar ones, and let them find out what they like on their own.
  • Talk openly about a healthy school lunch. While school cafeterias might not always offer what you consider ideal, it’s an opportunity for kids to practice making healthy choices and trying new foods. Check your child’s school website for cafeteria menus. And discuss how to pick a healthy, well-balanced meal in the lunch line.

Ages 12–18:

  • Have ongoing non-judgmental conversations to find out what your teen knows about nutrition. Weave in discussions about fruits and veggies, calcium-rich foods, and appropriate snacking.
  • Teach teens how to plan, shop, compare food labels, and prepare meals.
  • Ask your teens to let you know if they won’t be home at dinnertime. If they choose to skip the family meal, you might anticipate they’ll take care of themselves.
  • Tune into any concerns about weight and dieting. As teens enter puberty, they often gain weight before their height increases. Dieting should be considered carefully because it can have negative outcomes. Teenagers who diet are often heavier, not slimmer, by the time high-school graduation comes around. They might miss out on needed nutrients too. If your teen still wants to pursue weight loss, get help from a registered dietitian.
  • Know the warning signs of disordered eating. Teens who refuse to participate in family meals and often skip meals might be struggling with their relationships with food. Is your teen withdrawing from friends, irritable, or depressed? These and any signs of extreme dieting, bingeing, and purging might indicate an eating disorder. Share your concerns with your teen’s doctor and explore available support and resources.
  • Consider how your teen’s involvement with sports impacts his or her nutrition. Keep healthy snacks on hand to help fuel your teen athletes after sports practices and games. Beware of and protect your teens from unwise fueling recommendations—from coaches and teammates—related to eating, dietary supplements, and sports performance. The best eating plan is one with a variety of foods and sport-dependent increases in calories and protein. Check out HPRC’s Fueling the adolescent athlete for more guidance.