Dos and Don’ts for Helping Your Anxious Child Eat Healthier

healthy eatingFood can fabulously fuel your body, or it can serve to further fuel your child’s stress and anxiety. It’s not just the types of food you eat, either, but it includes your household eating habits.

We already noted how the nutritional craze may hurt your anxious child, but that doesn’t mean healthy eating and healthy eating habits shouldn’t be in the cards. We collected several Dos and Don’ts that can help your anxious child – and your entire family – eat healthier  to stay happier.

Dos for Healthy Eating

Do remember you’re in charge. If you don’t want your anxious child to keep begging for all the ooey-gooey brownies in the house, stop keeping ooey-gooey brownies in the house. You’re in control of the supply lines, KidsHealth reminds, which means you get to pick what foods to buy and when to serve them.

You can still buy ooey-gooey brownies once in a while, but try to keep more nutritious staples around for snacks and desserts. If your child is like the rest of us, he or she will eat what’s in the house when hungry.

Do give your anxious child some leeway. Just because you’re not going to serve ooey-gooey brownies as a main course doesn’t mean your anxious child shouldn’t get a bit of say in what to eat. Let them pick between two healthy options as a snack, what type of healthy sandwich they’d like to bring for lunch, or even get them involved with planning and preparing meals.

If you want to go for it no-holds-barred, make it a family challenge to come up with a week’s worth of balanced meals with input from all. Preparing dinner can also be a family affair, with age-appropriate tasks doled out across the board. While your tot may be way too young to chop onions, he or she can still help by getting the onion out of the cupboard, yes?

Do make time for family meal time. Eating together as a family is another important “do” on the list. Not only does this ensure your child is eating healthy, it doubles as a bonding time. Setting a regular meal time helps anxious children by giving them a regular routine they come to expect and even enjoy.

A report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that children who regularly eat with their families were four times less likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or indulge in marijuana. For real! “Parental engagement” is the key, NPR said in an article about the report, and family meals give you a prime opportunity to engage, counsel and catch up with your children’s lives.

If your anxious child is in the teen stage where family meals are “so uncool,” you can still make them work with a few tricky tips from KidsHealth.

  • Let them invite a pal for dinner.
  • Make family meals a “no lecture” and “no arguing” zone
  • Invite your teen help with meal planning and prep

Do  be a healthy-eating role model. Perhaps the biggest do is to practice what you preach and be a healthy eater yourself. You can’t very well ban ooey-gooey brownies when your children see you eating them for you own lunch. Well, you can since you’re in charge, but you’re not setting a healthy example and, no matter what you say, children are prone to imitate what they see, not necessarily what they hear.

Don’ts for Healthy Eating 

Don’t force your children to (over)eat. Making your child eat when he’s not hungry, or when she’s so anxious she feels nauseous, is never a good move. Nor is making your child sit at the table until he or she cleans the plate. Ugh!

Even though that practice was once common, it can backfire in the long run. Children may start missing the cue that their body is full, setting up a lifelong habit of overeating and potential obesity. Instead let them stop eating when they feel full, not only when there are no more shards of broccoli on the plate.

Don’t think kids have to be a “certain age” to start eating healthy. KidsHealth says children can start developing likes and dislikes when they’re babies. That means spitting out the creamed peas may not just be all in fun. Letting your children try a few bites of healthy foods can help you discover what they like so you can offer more of it. Variety is a must.

Don’t mindlessly stick children with kids’ menu fare. Most restaurant children’s menus are stocked with things like hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, shoving children into a stereotype that that’s what they should like to eat. That’s not always the case. Let your children experiment with other dishes if they wish, perhaps by ordering up different appetizers or offering them a part of your entrée.

Don’t forget beverages have calories. Soda pop, sugary juices and other beverages your anxious child drinks throughout the day can be loaded with additives and calories. Water and milk should be the prime beverages of choice, with 100-percent juice as a limited option. Preschoolers do fine with no more than 6 ounces of juice per day, according to KidsHealth.

Don’t say ‘I love you’ with a pizza. Too many adult food issues can stem from childhood reinforcement that food means comfort, happiness or love. People can begin to use food as a coping mechanism to better handle anxiety, stress or other uncomfortable feelings. Not good.

You yourself may have experienced bits of this, like when someone handed you a cookie to make you feel better after you skinned your knee or failed to make the cheerleading squad. You can express love and support in ways that are much healthier and meaningful than a cupcake or a pizza. Try offering attention, praise or a big, fat hug – not a big, fat cheesecake.

Check out more tips on the types of food that can help alleviate children’s anxiety in our series Feeding Them Calm.


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