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Role Modeling and Engaging Children With Food

By: Bessie O'Connor, RDN

  • Monday, September 28, 2020
  • 5 Minute Read   

Learn how role modeling can engage children with food.

As a caregiver, you are the most important influence on your children’s lives. Sharing positive cooking, shopping, gardening and eating experiences with children will inspire healthy eating habits over time and contribute to good health in childhood and adulthood. Role modeling takes health beyond getting children to “eat their vegetables.” It supports eating a variety of healthy foods for a lifetime and promotes physical, mental and social well-being. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, healthy children perform better on standardized tests, get higher grades, have better attendance and show improved concentration, memory and mood. Daily work, school and play schedules may look very different from one family to another, but there are many simple ways for busy adults to model healthy eating behaviors and engage children with food. 

Model eating and enjoying a wide variety of foods.

  • Whether breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack—and at a table or on the go—share eating experiences that include a mix of foods from all the food groups: Dairy, Vegetables, Fruits, Grains and Protein. 
  • During shared meals, talk about the ingredients. Are they local? In season? Do they grow in the ground, on a bush or in a tree? 
  • Let children see you enjoy healthy foods such as crunchy vegetables, tart and juicy apples or fruit and yogurt smoothies.
  • Avoid labeling foods as good or bad and embrace all foods as part of a healthy eating pattern.

Let children help with grocery shopping.

  • At the market, discuss where dairy, vegetables, fruits, grains and protein come from. Talk about how you plan to use them in a meal or snack.
  • Allow children to pick a new fruit or vegetable to try. If you are unfamiliar with a new food, ask a produce clerk how it grows, what it tastes like or ways to prepare it.  

Engage children in food preparation.

  • Children of all ages can help with food preparation. They can press the buttons on the microwave to warm up frozen broccoli, turn the handle on a can opener or rinse fresh vegetables. Be creative with food preparation tasks that are simple and safe.
  • Have children take turns being helpers if having “too many cooks in the kitchen” seems overwhelming. 

Set and follow a daily meal and snack schedule.

  • Model healthy eating by making time for nutritious meals and snacks at predictable times throughout the day. Children respond well to routines even when it comes to eating. Creating these habits early will guide children’s meal and snacking patterns in the future.  
  • Show children that both snacks and meals can be nutritious. Pick foods from two of the food groups to make a healthy snack. For example, choose celery (Vegetables) with peanut butter (Protein) or pair a slice of cheese (Dairy) with an apple (Fruits). 

Grow your own foods.

  • Container or raised bed gardens allow children to actively participate and see the transformation from seed to food. Gardens build a connection between the food they eat and where it comes from.
  • If space is limited, experiment with a small pot of herbs in the kitchen. Try mint or chives, which grow well indoors. 

Engaging children with food will look different for every family, and incorporating every role modeling approach may not be possible. Start by picking one realistic way you want to be a healthy role model for your children. Celebrate your successes and keep shared food experiences positive, relaxed and enjoyable! For more information on role modeling and healthy eating, visit HealthyEating.org/FoodTasting.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health and Academic Achievement. Atlanta, GA: CDC; 2014.
 https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/health_and_academics/pdf/health-academic-achievement.pdf. Accessed September 10, 2020. 

Ellyn Satter Institute. Feed your child with love and good sense. Ellyn Satter Institute website. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/. Accessed September 10, 2020.

Ellyn Satter Institute. Feed yourself with love and good sense. Ellyn Satter Institute website. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-eat/. Accessed September 10, 2020.

Satter E. The vegetable agenda: getting children to eat “nutritious” food. Ellyn Satter Institute website. https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/family-meals-focus/84-the-vegetable-agenda-getting-children-to-eat-nutritious-food/. Accessed September 10, 2020.


Bessie O'Connor, RDN

Bessie O'Connor, RDN

Bessie is a practicing Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the Community Nutrition Adviser for California’s Central Coast region.

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