Healthy Eating Habits for Children

Children need to develop good eating habits early in life. Being overweight is a common nutrition problem among American children today, tripling since the 1970s. Being overweight during childhood is a predictor of similar trends in the future, including adult obesity. Fifty to sixty percent of today’s children will become overweight or obese adults; with proper education during childhood, these statistics can be decreased.

What are Habits?

Habits are actions that are done automatically and are learned by repeating frequently. Remember learning to drive a car? Each step had to be thought through carefully: put the key in the ignition, put the car into drive, and apply the brakes at stoplights. After driving for several years, these movements became automatic. They are done out of habit.

Changing Habits

Healthy eating does not become a habit overnight. It takes time and effort to make it a part of a daily routine. Good or bad habits can be formed in anything, including eating. No thought is given to where, when, and what is eaten. Eating while doing certain activities can become a habit. For example, it becomes automatic to grab a candy bar to eat while watching TV or reading a book.

Children form habits that will last a lifetime. Encourage them to develop good eating habits because poor eating habits can lead to obesity and result in poor health. The following undesirable eating habits contribute to weight problems and can lead to chronic health problems:

  • Snacking while watching TV
  • Using food as a reward to entice good behavior. “Behave now, and I’ll give you candy later” is like saying, “Here is something unhealthy for you as a reward for being good.” This reinforces an emotional link to eating.
  • Using food as a form of recreation to make oneself feel good. “I’m bored! Let’s go out for pizza.”
  • Treating children with food. “Bring home a good report card, and we’ll go for ice cream.”
  • Having snack foods like candy, chips, and soft drinks in plain sight

Eating foods of little nutritional value such as candy, cookies, chips, and doughnuts contributes empty calories to the diet. This usually prevents children from being open to eating a wide variety of foods needed for growth and good health. Research has shown that foods used as “rewards” become more desirable to children than if they had not been used as rewards.

Promoting Good Eating Habits in Children

  • Follow these suggestions to help children establish good life-long eating habits to prevent weight complications:
  • Eat a variety of nutritious foods. Be willing to try new foods.
  • Establish a regular family meal pattern. Three nutritious meals supplemented by healthy snacks are recommended.
  • Space meals appropriately throughout the day rather than eating large amounts at one time. Many people who skip breakfast and eat most of their daily food later in the afternoon are likely to experience overweight or obesity.
  • Learn serving sizes for each family member. Serve just enough food to meet their needs, especially if a family member has difficulty regulating their weight. Today’s restaurant portions are often larger than a recommended serving size.
  • Make mealtime and snack time pleasant. Avoid fussing, nagging, arguing, or complaining at the table. Mealtime stress can lead to emotional overeating.
  • Help children find ways other than eating to address emotions. Although eating may feel good for a while, food cannot properly solve problems.
  • Have a designated eating area in the home. This eliminates snacking in front of the TV and in the bedroom where mindless eating can occur. Eating while watching TV shifts attention away from the food, making it is easy to overeat.
  • Do not let eating become a form of recreation. Find a hobby to substitute for “recreational eating.” Then, when working on the hobby, avoid eating for “extra fun.”
  • Plan nutritious snacks ahead of time. Waiting until hunger strikes to decide what snack to eat usually results in choosing a food low in nutritional value and high in calories.
  • Involve children in planning and preparing nutritious snacks.  Oftentimes, if they have helped choose the snack and or make the snack, they will be more willing to eat it.
  • Provide snacks that are high in nutrients in relation to calories. Stock the kitchen with low-calorie, easy-to-grab nutritious snacks. Fruits, raw vegetables, milk, juice, and vanilla wafers are good choices. Keep prepared fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator. Fruits, carrots, celery, cauliflower, etc. can be washed in cool running water and cut so that they are ready to eat.
  • Keep snack foods where kids can see them. Leave fresh fruit on the kitchen counter, store other foods in see-through containers and clear plastic bags, so the contents are visible. When children come home from school hungry, they often feel ravenous.
  • Keep treats just what they are – treats! They should not become a daily habit. Eating doughnuts, sweet desserts, and other high-calorie foods can easily become a habit if they are always in the home. Think of them as “sometimes” foods.
  • Avoid buying foods in which the family may overindulge. Just seeing food may stimulate the appetite for many people. Keep less nutritious foods in cabinets where they are not as convenient.
  • Limit the number of snacks. Snacks should satisfy the appetite between meals but are not a substitute for a meal.
  • Teach children to eat when they are hungry, not out of boredom or just because they have seen a snack food advertised on TV. Sometimes grabbing a cookie or a handful of chips may be more habit than hunger. They should ask themselves, “Am I really hungry, and do I need to eat?” They must learn to read their body signals for hunger and satisfaction. However, for many children, hunger is real when they come home from school. They will likely need to eat a snack to satisfy their appetite before dinner.

Healthy Snack Ideas

It is helpful to plan for snacks in advance. Snack foods should be part of a child’s regular dietary pattern and provide nutrients that they need. Try these quick, healthful snacks.

Fruit Slices: Spread peanut butter on apple or Banana Slices.

Veggies with Dip: Cut carrots, celery, cucumbers, or zucchini into sticks or coins. Then dip them into prepared salsa.

Snack Kebobs: Cut raw vegetables and fruit into chunks. Skewer them onto thin pretzel sticks. (Dip cut pieces of fruit in orange juice to prevent it from becoming discolored.)

Salsa Quesadillas: Fill a soft tortilla with cheese and salsa, fold over, and grill.

Banana Pops: Peel a banana and dip it in yogurt. Roll in crushed breakfast cereal and freeze.

Hardboiled Eggs: A quick protein-rich snack! Boil eggs for 12 minutes, then cool before peeling. Add some salt and pepper or even powdered ranch mix for extra flavor.

Pudding Shakes: Mix ½ cup low-fat or fat-free milk with 3 tablespoons of instant pudding mix. Put in a non-breakable, covered container. Make sure the lid is tight. Shake and pour into a cup.

Peanut Butter Balls: Mix peanut butter and bran or cornflakes in a bowl. Shape the mixture into balls with clean hands and roll in crushed graham crackers.

Here are some recipes for tasty snacks that are simple to make:

Lunch Box Pizzas:

5 Whole-wheat English muffins, halved
¼ cup tomato sauce
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning or oregano
10 slices pepperoni
¾ cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese (or other favorite cheese)
¾ cup sliced or chopped vegetables (green peppers, mushrooms, broccoli)

Lay the English muffins on a baking sheet. Combine the tomato sauce and Italian seasoning; spoon 1 teaspoonful into each cup. Top each with a slice of pepperoni, a vegetable topping of your choice, and 1 tablespoon of cheese. Bake at 425 °F for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool and package individually in plastic sandwich bags.

These are good cold in a lunch box or made for a snack. Include an ice pack or a box of frozen juice with the wrapped pizzas to keep them cold.

Makes 10 servings. One serving provides 206 calories, 10 grams protein, 3 grams fiber, and 9 grams fat.

(Adapted from The ABC’s of Growing Healthy Kids: Keep on Snacking)

Fruit Yogurt Pops:

1 8oz pina colada flavored yogurt
2 ½ cups strawberries (sliced frozen, thawed)

Combine ingredients. Pour into 3-ounce paper cups. Freeze about 30 minutes; then stick a wooden popsicle/craft stick in the center of each cup. Freeze overnight until firm. To eat pops, peel off paper cups. For variety, try other fruit-flavored yogurts, frozen fruit, or fruit juice concentrates.

Makes 14 (3-ounce) cups or 14 servings. One serving (one yogurt pop) provides 26 calories, 1 gram protein, 1 gram fiber, and 0 grams fat.

(Choose MyPlate Recipes –

Happy Trail Mix:

2 cups honey graham cereal
1 cup tiny marshmallows
1 cup peanuts
½ cup semisweet chocolate or butterscotch pieces
½ cup raisins

Combine all ingredients. Store in a closed plastic bag or covered container.

Makes about 5 cups or 10 servings. One serving provides 260 calories, 7 grams protein, 3 grams fiber, and 15 grams fat.

(The ABC’s of Growing Healthy Kids: Keep on Snacking)


  1. Evers, William. Forming Good Habits in Children to Avoid Obesity (Revised 03/04). Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.
  2. Duyff, Roberta Larson. American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, 2nd Edition. 2002.
  3. Cason, Katherine. The ABC’s of Growing Healthy Kids: Keep on Snacking.(Revised 06/04 by Julie A. Haines). Penn State University Cooperative Extension Service
  4. Childhood Obesity Facts | Overweight & Obesity | CDC. Published 2020. Accessed September 8, 2020.
  5. Ward Z, Long M, Resch S, Giles C, Cradock A, Gortmaker S. Simulation of Growth Trajectories of Childhood Obesity into Adulthood. New England Journal of Medicine. 2017;377(22):2145-2153. doi:10.1056/nejmoa1703860
  6. Yogurt Pops | ChooseMyPlate. Published 2020. Accessed September 9, 2020.

Originally published 09/05

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