Teaching Your Child Healthy Eating Habits
Jill Castle
MS, RDN, Childhood Nutrition Expert

Getting your kids to eat the healthy stuff on their plate is one of the most difficult yet important jobs for any parent. But when everyone’s busy, tired, and hangry, getting a balanced, nutritious meal on the table – or out the door – can feel impossible. Making sure kids eat the right foods is just as important as how they eat, says Jill Castle. She’s a Registered Dietitian and Pediatric Nutritionist with 30 years of clinical and practical experience. She’s also a mom of four, an author, and host of “The Nourished Child” podcast. Jill joins us to share advice for how parents can establish healthy eating habits for their kids and develop a positive relationship with food. She also gives advice on how handling picky eaters, dealing with dinnertime, planning healthy snacks and lunches, and the importance of connecting and bonding around food.

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Why feeding styles are like parenting styles – and the best approach to take when it comes to feeding our kids
  • Practical advice and techniques for parents to get their kids to try and enjoy new foods
  • Why forcing kids to eat or bribing them with food can (and will!) backfire
  • Foods and nutrients kids need to stay full, focused, and productive all day long (and those they don’t)
  • Picky eating – what’s normal, when to worry, and how to set healthy mealtime routines
  • How to involve kids in preparing and selecting a healthy school lunch
  • Tips and tricks for how to take the stress out of dinnertime and meal planning
  • The link between childhood obesity and our national need for a “food education”

Click here to read the full episode.

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Full Transcript

Teaching Your Child Healthy Eating Habits

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast brought to you by Care@Work. 

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, but also being a head cook, sous chef, server and meal planner for some of the world's most demanding customers, that's a 24/7 job. I'm your host, Emily Paisner. Today I'm with a fantastic guest, Jill castle. She's a registered dietitian and pediatric nutritionist and she's seen it all. She's worked with babies, toddlers, children, and teenagers in hospitals and for private practices for nearly 30 years. She's also a mom of four and author and host of The Nourished Child Podcast. During our time together, we talked about how to set up healthy eating habits early, dealing with picky eating, and the importance of connecting around food and lots more. Have a listen. Jill, thank you so much for being here today. 

Jill Castle: My pleasure. 

Emily: There was something that struck me as being really powerful when I was watching your TED Talk. You said how a child is fed is just as important as what they will eat. That really struck me. I had to take a step back and think about that a little bit more. 

Jill: Put it on repeat it a couple of times [laughs]. 

Emily: Can you explain that? 

Jill: Yes, so we know that there are feeding styles. We all come to the table with a feeding style. It's like having a parenting style. We're either loosey-goosey with our parenting or we're super strict and controlling. We do the same with feeding our kids. When we use these different controlling or lax feeding styles, it changes a relationship potentially that a child develops with themselves, with their parent, and with food. For example, if you are a controlling feeder, for example, and controlling is a little bit of a loaded word, but if you have a lot of rules, you have desires for how you want your child to eat, what you want them to eat, how you want them to perform at the table, and so you come to the table and you say, "This is our meal, and you can't leave the table until you eat everything." 

That's the clean plate club approach. The child might not eat everything. Then the parent says, "Well, you can't leave. You have to sit here until you finish it." But what happens for the child is that they become less interested in eating those foods that you want them to eat. They actually can become resentful of having to sit at the table forever and ever and that colors their relationship to that food at least, but it may color the relationship to eating in general. Then you have a kid who doesn't want to come to the table because it's not enjoyable because they're going to be forced to do something they don't want to do. 

Emily: What's a better approach? 

Jill: A better approach is being diplomatic with feeding. It's called diplomatic feeding style. I like to call it love with limits. You're sensitive to your child's food preferences, you understand that they have some autonomy, but you're also setting up a feeding environment where you're in control of what's on the plate or what's on the table to eat. You're in control of the timing of the meal, and you're as the parent in control of where the food is eaten, but truly the child is in control of themselves, whether they eat or not, and how much they eat. It's called the division of responsibility. If you can keep that sort of division like you don't get into the business of making your child eat, you'll actually probably, and I've seen this happen over and over again, have a much more cooperative child at the dinner table. Now added to that you need to have structure. When do meals happen, are they on time, or are you willy-nilly all over the place and your child is starving and doesn't know when to eat? 

Emily: That sounds good in theory, but most of our listeners are working parents, and likely they're part of a dual-career couple. How do we try and create some consistency when our days aren't even consistent? 

Jill: Do a 24-hour plan. Just know what you're doing tomorrow so that you can actually take some action on that today. If you need to shop for ingredients for tomorrow night's dinner, if you need to chop things tonight so that they're ready to throw into the pan when you get home, if you need to get up 20 minutes early to throw things in a crock-pot so that when you roll in the door, it's done. I am a working parent. I've been married to a man who works too and we have four kids. I remember the days when I was working full time. I was starting dinner in the morning and I relied on my grocery list, my meal plan, all that stuff, and honestly, I didn't worry about breakfast. I didn't worry about lunch. I worried about dinner and-- 

Emily: Because everyone's tired. 

Jill: Everyone's tired. 

Emily: Everyone's hungry. That, for me personally is the worst time of day. 

Jill: Yes. One trick that I used to do all the time, and I encourage my families to do is when you get home from work, pull out the fruit, pull out the vegetables, put it on the counter, just have it out there, and then number one, there's food and it's good food for your kids to snack on while you're cooking dinner. Number two, you've completely eliminated the pressure at the meal time to make your kids eat fruits and vegetables, because they already have. You kill two birds with one stone. 

Emily: Just put it out, they'll eat it. Don't ask, just put it out. 

Jill: I love it when parents don't negotiate around food. I love it when parents are just like, this is what it is. You don't have to eat it. Completely don't care. Don't care if your child eats the food or not, just know as a parent, your job is to get a meal on the table, hopefully make it a balanced meal. When we say balanced, a protein source, a grain source, a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy. Five food groups, try and get most of those out on the table, and then rinse your hands of it, pat yourself on the back. Yay, I had a long day, I worked all day, but I got this on the table. My job is done. Now it's my child's job to decide, am I going to eat this or not? Frankly, if they don't, it's okay. Because you got tomorrow with three meals and two or three snacks for them to meet their needs. 

Emily: If one of your children is a really picky eater, and you put that plate of food out in front of them, and they're only eating the carb, how do you handle that? 

Jill: You're always going to want to rotate different foods. You're not going to want to get into the rut of always making the foods that you're picky eater will eat. That's the number one rule, because when you do that, you back yourself into a corner and you back your child into a corner. You limit their diet significantly. The nutrition that they could be getting, you limit that by only serving the same things over and over again. With picky eaters, you really have to be even keeled. Not emotional about whether they eat or not. You still have to be as a parent willing to put things out that in your mind, you know they're not going to eat, but what we know from the research is that exposure and repeated exposure to new foods is what it takes to help move the needle. When we look at parents, parents give up after two or three exposures. 

When we look at the number of exposures, kids need at least eight. Some children will need 15. Those really extremely picky eaters might need 50 exposures before they'll eat something. 

Emily: That's great to know. Because I think we try something once and then we say, well, they didn't like that. 

Jill: Yes, it's a game of perseverance, really. For those picky eaters that don't even want food on their plate, then we do what I call a learning plate. They have a small plate to the side of their regular dinner plate, where they put a new food that they don't know about, they're not familiar with or they might not like, and they can just explore it, they can touch it, they can smell it, they can kiss it, they can put it in their mouth, take it out, so they taste it, but they're not really eating it. It's a low pressure way of helping picky eaters be able to try new food without the expectation of eating it. Pressure and forcing and bribing, they don't work in the long run. They don't work at all. In fact, many times they work in the exact opposite way you want them to work. You end up with a child that hates green beans or hates broccoli, will never touch it, will never ever eat it. That's not what most parents want. 

Emily: My kids are now eight and nine. I would venture to say that six days out of the week, we are on the go. They're coming home from school, they're eating real quick, and then we're back out the door. On the weekends, we're going from field to field to field. How do we make sure that they're getting the right food that they need to be able to focus during the school day, and then, be able to perform and all of their after-school activities as well? 

Jill: Yes. I want to highlight one nutrient in particular, and that's protein. For children, it's very important for their growth and their development, but it's also very important in helping them stay focused and attentive in school, as well as helping them feel full after they eat. I'm a huge fan of making sure you're selecting a protein source at every meal and at every snack. For example, at breakfast, it might be that you're serving scrambled eggs or it might be that you're including cheese or yogurt or milk in the cereal, but some source of protein will help them stay full for two or three hours until it's time for the next snack. If you're doing snacks, again, cheese sticks, hummus, yogurt parfaits, cheese and crackers, peanut butter or other nut butters on crackers or apples. 

Emily: Some of those are great, but how do you make sure that there's not too much sugar? You look at something like a yogurt and they're actually pretty high in sugar so how do you balance, okay, they're getting the protein that they need, but oh no, there's a lot of sugar in this? 

Jill: Sugar is something we do need to be concerned about, but I usually tell my families the obvious sources of sugar are the ones you want to watch out for. Don't worry about the yogurt when your child is eating candy bars and ice cream and cookies and cupcakes at school every day or at home after school. Worry about those first before you start picking apart the chocolate milk and the yogurt and the things that have nutrients in it. 

Emily: You talked a little bit about breakfast, you talked a little bit about dinner, but we haven't really talked about school lunch. How can we provide them with healthy lunches? 

Jill: I think you should teach your child how to pack a healthy lunch and I think that kids can participate in doing that. Now, they might not get up at 6:00 AM every morning and pack their own lunch. However, they can have a say in what's going to be made every day of the week. They can participate the night before in packaging some of that food so it's literally pull it out of the refrigerator and throw it in the bucket. As mothers, we get sucked into this idea that we have to do everything for our kids and we don't. It's actually not a good idea to raise our kids that way. 

Emily: I'm definitely not making heart-shaped sandwiches in the morning, I'll tell you that right now. 

Jill: I never did that. If my kids got diagonal triangles, that was like a big deal. 

Emily: What about school lunches that they get while they're at school? 

Jill: This comes up a lot in my conversations with families because they feel like they have no control over what their child is choosing at school and at a certain point you don't have control. You're not going to have control over your teenager, but for your younger school-age child, you can look at the menu and sit down with your child and say, what are we choosing and forecast for the week. That's one thing to do. The other thing is teaching your child the food groups and teaching them what must be on their school lunch tray. What you really want them to choose first. 

Going back to the conversation about protein, I want you to choose protein first so let's look at the menu, what's that going to be? It's either the grilled chicken breast or it's the turkey sandwich, or if you don't like those you can get a yogurt, but give your child the options and the framework that they need to operate in and they'll do great. 

Emily: What about some time-saving and cost-saving tips and tricks you can share to help our listeners who are playing the role of meal planner, head cook, sous chef, and the servers [laughs] all in one? 

Jill: Well, buy seasonal produce. It's going to be your cheapest, least expensive. Use shortcuts. You don't have to roast a chicken every week. You can buy a roasted chicken. My third tip would be repurpose what you make. If you do make a roasted chicken then turn it in the next day into chicken soup or chicken quesadillas or something for dinner, but repurpose some of your meals. If you are a working parent, try to make a little bit more than what your family needs for dinner so you have some leftovers. You have them that you can pop them in the freezer or you have them for yourself for lunch the next day. Forecast and think about how you can minimize your effort but maximize your results. 

Emily: It's no secret that childhood obesity is on the rise. It's become a real serious problem here in the United States. What is the main culprit here? 

Jill: I think there are a lot of issues. From my standpoint, a lot of what we are dealing with with children and their weight these days stems from a lack of food knowledge in families. In the realm of feeding children, we have not been prepped as a nation at all, and so parents are having children and they know they're going to do formula or breastfeed. They make that decision right off the bat, but once they start feeding solids to their babies, they're winging it, or they're talking to their mother or their next-door neighbor. They're winging it some more. Then picky eating comes, and then their kids go to school and they have to deal with school lunches and all these different sports after school. Then their kids become teenagers and their teenagers are wanting to go on a diet. Parents are not prepared to handle all that stuff. They have not been prepped. They have not been prepped in what to feed their children. They've not been prepped in how to feed their kids, and they're not ready for what's coming down the pike, and it puts many, many parents, I don't want to say every parent, but many parents into a tailspin. 

Emily: If you could say that there's like one or two must-reads for parents around healthy eating, what would you recommend? 

Jill: Well, I don't want to like toot my own horn or anything, but I did write a book to address this issue, and it's called Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. It covers what to feed kids, how to do it in positive ways, and what to expect. It makes that connection between getting infancy right will lead you and set you up for a successful toddlerhood, but hey, there's some other things you got to be learning about and understanding in toddlerhood. 

Once you get through that, that's going to set you up for school age, but there's other things that are happening there that you need to be prepared for. The other book I would encourage parents to read is a book called Child of Mine and it was written by Ellyn Satter back in the '80s. It really just emphasizes the trust and attachment and responsivity that you need to develop with your child around food and feeding. That happens very early on but it continues throughout their childhood, and when you've got a really strong trust and attachment established, your child will listen to you, they will partner with you, they will collaborate to solve problems. 

Emily: Lastly, you are a mom of four, and so you have a lot of personal experience feeding a large family. If you could give our listeners one final pro tip, as we finish up this conversation, what would that be? 

Jill: That's a great question. I'm probably am going to surprise the listeners because as a dietitian, most people think it's going to be about the food, but it is not about the food. It's really about the connection. If you can manage to use food and meal times and snack times as a vehicle to connect with your kids, it can be quite rewarding. I know we live in a country where family meals are really hard for families to do, but if you do them well and use them as a vehicle to connect with your children, not as a way to harp on your kids for what they're eating or not eating, but as a way to connect and communicate with your children, you're going to raise kids who love coming to the table to sit around it with you. 

That is the most rewarding thing, I think, as a mom that I can take away from that experience. Yes, I know what a balanced healthy meal is, and I know how to positively feed my children and I know how to do all these techniques, which I did with my kids, but the outcome that has made me most proud is that they enjoy coming to the table, they eat all kinds of foods, and when we're together, it's not about who's eating what and how much. It's about talking about a lot of other stuff. 

Emily: That's really special. Thank you so much, Jill, for being here today. 

Jill: You're very welcome. 

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time. 

Emily: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit of Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.