ten ways to create a healthy food environment at home

Ten Ways to Create a Healthy Food Environment at Home

Gabrielle Grode, MPH and Kathryn Henderson, Ph.D.

Category: Obesity Related

Lifestyle is the product of a series of small day to day decisions. These decisions are strongly influenced
by our environment, both physical and social. Safe streets
encourage the choice to walk to school or work; office
vending machines encourage the decision to have mid-afternoon
candy breaks; televisions in every room promote
sedentary activity. We have very little control over some
environments, such as what billboards we see when
driving on the highway. But other environments, like
the home, are largely within our control.

When it comes to the home, parents are the nutritional
gatekeepers, and can create an environment that fosters,
supports and promotes healthy eating. We recognize that
the role of nutritional gatekeeper is challenging, made
difficult by rampant marketing of unhealthy foods to
children, and the ubiquitous availability of such foods.
We fully support improved regulation in this area, so that
a parent’s job is made easier. At the same time, parents
can make certain changes in their homes to promote
health. Here are 10 things parents can do to make healthy
food choices the default option at home.

1. It starts at the market

Only bring home foods that you want your family to eat. You
can easily avoid arguments with your family about what to
eat by only buying the foods that meet your approval.

2. Inventory your home

Look around your house and ask, what foods and beverages
are easily accessible and highly visible? Do you see
more unhealthy or healthy foods? People tend to eat more
of foods that are most visible, so restock your kitchen with
foods and drinks that are healthy and keep the unhealthy
foods out of sight.

3. Pre-portion family meals

Rather than placing large bowls of food on the kitchen table
and allowing family member to serve themselves (this is
known as “family style”), portion foods on plates before serving
and leave serving bowls on the counter. Research shows
that people eat more food when given large portions. By
pre-portioning food, your family will be more likely to eat the
amount they need, rather than the amount they see. Family
members will not be prompted to take seconds by the mere
presence of food, and will be able to tune into internal cues
of hunger more readily. Try using smaller plates, too. Ten-inch
plates seem to be just right.

4. Set mealtime rules

It is a good practice to have rules for mealtime, as children respond well to
limits. Examples of some effective mealtime rules are:

  • Eat together. Mealtime is valuable family time. Although we recognize this
    can be difficult, try to schedule family members’ extra-curricular activities
    around a common dinner hour on most nights of the week. Research
    shows that youth who regularly eat with their families have better outcomes
    in several areas, such as vocabulary growth, academic achievement,
    substance abuse, behavioral problems, eating disorders and obesity.
  • No television, phones, or computers at the dinner table.
  • Everyone – both children and adults – takes a portion of each food.
    While we don’t advocate forcing children, or adults, to eat certain foods,
    having a food on the plate does increase the likelihood that one will eat
    it. You may want to extend this rule to requiring everyone to also taste
    each food. This is a great technique for gently encouraging family
    members to try new fruits and vegetables.
  • Monitor how “full” we are when eating. A common rule in households
    is to finish all the food on your plate, but this rule teaches children
    to monitor how much to eat through external cues. By not insisting on
    a “clean plate,” children can learn to evaluate how hungry they are and
    how much food they really need.
  • If you have young picky eaters, you may need to set rules around
    how they should behave when they don’t care for a food. Children
    do not have to like the food they’ve tried, but they are not permitted to
    be overly dramatic or negative about it. Dramatics tend to draw attention
    from parents. The attention will reinforce and encourage the picky
    eating behavior rather than discourage it.

5. Reward good behavior with things other than food

Using food as a reward or punishment may be effective in the short-term,
but is linked to weight struggles later in life. Find other ways to mold your
children’s behavior. Time-outs work well for discouraging certain behaviors
in young children. Alternatives to food rewards abound: let your child choose
a special outing; keep a box of toys that are played with only on special
occasions; create a system where your child earns points towards something
she or he values.

6. Make water and low-fat milk the drinks of choice

These are the best beverages for your family, and should be the most available
drinks in your home. Water satisfies thirst, is free when it comes from the tap,
and also contains fluoride, which is great for teeth. Low-fat milk has important
nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, which build strong bones. Soda, sports
drinks and other sugar-sweetened drinks have no place in a child’s diet. It is
not surprising that the increasing rate of obesity coincides with the increasing
rate of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. A common beverage for
children is 100% juice, but we recommend limiting juice intake. The majority of
fruits and vegetables in one’s diet should come from whole foods, as excessive
juice intake is linked to tooth decay, diarrhea and obesity.

7. Eat at home

Limit dining at restaurants and you will not only save money,
you will also eat more nutritional foods.

8. Separate feeding from caretaking

Many of us show our love through food. A lot of people feel
guilty denying their families certain foods, even if it’s in the
name of health. Try to create an environment where feeding is
different from caretaking. There are many ways to show love,
such as a hug and a simple “I love you.” By providing healthy
foods to our families, we can send the message that we love
our families so much, we want them to be healthy.

9. Walk the walk

Children are wonderful imitators! Many of their food preferences
and their willingness to try various foods come from
watching their parents. Multiple studies have shown that
parental modeling of a healthy diet is linked to children’s intake
of healthy foods. Try to set a good example and know that it
will have a positive impact on kids.

10. Share your feeding practices and rules with others

Babysitters, grandparents, older siblings, and other caretakers
should all be sending children the same messages so that a
consistent environment is created.

Parents often feel anxious about intervening in their children’s
food choices and eating habits. Below are some common
concerns and ways to handle them. It is important to remember
that because we are surrounded by unhealthy foods, and
subject to ever-present food marketing, rules and limits for our
children are necessary.

  • I am worried that if I say anything about food or eating,
    I will create an eating disorder in my child. This particular
    concern gets a lot of media play, and because of it, parents are
    fearful of intervening in the food realm at all. To be sure, eating
    disorders are serious illnesses. However, there is no evidence
    that encouraging healthy eating will lead to an eating disorder.
    In fact, research shows that school programs promoting healthy
    eating actually decrease eating disordered behaviors and
    attitudes in girls. Other research suggests that mothers who
    provide healthy limits on children’s intake have daughters who
    have healthier attitudes toward food several years later. We recommend
    focusing on healthy behaviors, rather than weight per
    se, to cultivate a healthy attitude toward eating and one’s body.
  • There are so many things to worry about with respect
    to raising kids
 food just seems like the last priority and
    another battle I don’t want to fight. We are very sympathetic
    to this sentiment. Many parents feel overwhelmed by academic
    and social pressures, violence, drugs and alcohol, sexual issues
    and more. However, of all the potential dangers facing our
    children, the health consequences of poor nutrition are likely to
    impact the most children. Because these consequences often
    take many years to surface, nutrition concerns don’t seem as
    pressing as, say, violence in schools. We encourage parents
    to try and consider the long-range effects and stay the course.
    That being said, there will be times when you just don’t have
    the energy to “do the right thing” nutritionally; be forgiving of
    yourself, and think about how you will do it differently next time.
  • When I try to get other people on board with feeding my
    child healthfully, they tell me I’m being “militant” or a “food
    nanny.” They often say something like “It’s just this one treat.”
    It can be difficult to align others in your child’s life with your food
    philosophy. One thing to remind them is that there are many
    people in your child’s life who like to provide treats, and that
    these can really add up over time with the vast number of occasions
    we celebrate. You can encourage them to offer non-food
    treats. Finally, you can ask that they respect your approach to
    food and parenting in the same way that they (hopefully) respect
    your choices around discipline or other aspects of parenting.
    While the food environment around us continues to spiral
    towards increased marketing of unhealthy foods, ambiguous
    health claims on foods, and pervasive access to unhealthy
    foods, it is comforting that the home remains a place where
    parents still have some control. By making these changes to
    your home environment, you are tipping the scale in favor of
    health – in effect taking the guesswork out of healthy decisions
    for your family. Being a nutritional gatekeeper is a big task, but
    one we hope has become a little easier with these 10 steps.

Gabrielle Grode, MPH is a Research Associate at the Rudd
Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University who
focuses on obesity research in school and community settings.
She also has worked in local government and non-profit
organizations on obesity prevention initiatives. Both authors
are currently studying nutrition and physical activity practices
and policies in preschools. For more information, resources,
podcasts and newsletters on obesity, please visit

Kathryn Henderson, Ph.D. is Director of School and Community
Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
at Yale University where she is also an Associate Research
Scientist. As former Clinical Director of the Yale Center for
Eating and Weight Disorders, she has treated and supervised
the treatment of children and adults with obesity and eating
disorders, and has published on the topics of obesity, weight
bias and stigma, environmental contributors to obesity, and
the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity.

WLS Lifestyles – www.wlslifestyles.com – Copyright 2009

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