- What your child eats matters both to their developing body and also to their developing brain, but your attitude may matter more.
- From birth through to adulthood, harmonious, sociable family dinners are an important cornerstone for building healthy brains and healthy bodies.
- Include your child in grocery shopping, meal planning, and cooking. Help them enjoy the creative and nutritional aspects of eating.
- Look for ways to grow your own food and make more foods from scratch.
Good nutrition builds healthy brains as well as healthy bodies, but your attitude matters as much as the food your child eats. Here are 10 ideas for supporting good nutrition and supporting your child’s brain development.
- Love is more important than breastfeeding. Although there are solid health and bonding benefits to breastfeeding, what’s most important to a baby’s developing brain—much more important than whether or not they’re breastfed—is that they’re surrounded by love, affection, and care, and given enough nourishment to grow and thrive. This principle holds true as your child gets older.
- Take good care of yourself. It’s more important that you keep yourself calm so you can be warm and nurturing than that you feed your baby or child in any particular way.
- Let your child win the food wars. It’s more important to your child’s long-term development that mealtimes are calm, warm, and relaxed, than that they eat certain amounts of certain foods. The crafty secret of good nutrition long-term is to let your child win the food wars while making sure most of their available options are healthy.
- Stock up on brain-healthy food. While your attitude is what matters most, nutrients are definitely important to your child’s brain function, memory, and concentration. These 10 "superfoods" could help boost your child’s brainpower: salmon and other fatty fish, eggs, peanut butter, whole grains, oats, berries, seeds and beans, colorful vegetables, dairy products, and high-quality protein sources like poultry, fish, and lean beef.
- Take your child grocery shopping. Shopping for food can be a great multi-sensory brain-building experience for your child, and support good eating habits at the same time. Make time to enjoy leisurely shopping trips where you answer your child’s questions, and let your child make as many choices as possible. Discuss which fruits look good today, and which vegetables they’d like to try. Talk about smells, textures, and appearances of the various options. As they get older, let them analyze prices and decide which products offer better value.
- Request your child’s help with food preparation. It’s harder for your child to resist healthy food they’ve helped make, and most kids enjoy spending time in the kitchen with a good-tempered parent who knows it will be slower and messier until the child masters some basic skills. Look for nutritious foods the child enjoys and are simple to make. In addition to honing reading, math, and reasoning skills, your child can get creative with presentation, as well as the choice of menus, ingredients, and recipes.
- Make family mealtimes harmonious and sociable. Insist that your child attend at least one family mealtime daily, but don’t bribe, coerce, coddle, or persuade them about what goes into their mouths. For everyone’s sake, keep the mealtime focus on sociable conversation, not on perfect manners or what they’re eating. If your child complains about the food or having to sit while you’re eating after they’ve finished, try to reorient them in a positive direction. Ask if there’s anything they like about the meal, or anything they’re grateful for. This helps their brain-building and their digestion.
- Grow some food. Discuss with your child what grows well in your climate and soil conditions. Talk to people with gardens, look at gardening books, and do some online research. Let your child choose one or two things they’d like to grow. Help them prepare a place for planting, whether it’s pots on a windowsill, a local community garden, or a backyard plot. Help them tend to the plants through the growing season. Help them harvest their crop and think about ways to enjoy it or share it. You’ll learn together about many aspects of science, nutrition, and nature.
- Keep having family dinners until your child leaves home. One of the best resiliency factors for a healthy adolescence—including continued brain-building until your child’s mid-20s—is regular and relaxed family mealtimes. Unless there’s an urgent reason to have a phone on (e.g., you’re an on-call doctor, or someone you know may require immediate assistance), all electronic devices should be off during mealtime. Family dinner can be an important touchstone for a teenager who is having trouble at school or somewhere else in their life. Try to keep your focus on being positive and supportive, especially at mealtime.
- Support your child in making good food decisions. Sometimes children (like adults) use food for solace, stimulation, anger management, or boredom-relief. If you have ongoing concerns about your child’s eating, think about whether the environment supports good decision-making. Is there a congenial family atmosphere? Are you modeling good eating habits? Are there healthy and tasty snacking options available, with a minimum of junk food and sugar? Do you have regular family mealtimes? Do you avoid nagging them about what they’re eating, when, or how much? If all that is good, consider whether your child has other needs that aren’t being met. If you still have serious worries, think about consulting a professional.
Good nutrition matters to the brain as much as it does to the body. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the best way to ensure your child eats well, and continues to eat well across their life span, is to let them decide when, what, and how much they’ll eat. Do have sociable family mealtimes and provide healthy and delicious food options, but otherwise back off. Enjoy your child for the wonderful human being they are, and try to let their food decisions be theirs.
Bauer, K. W., Haines, J., Miller, A. L., Rosenblum, K., Appugliese, D. P., Lumeng, J. C., & Kaciroti, N. A. (2017). Maternal restrictive feeding and eating in the absence of hunger among toddlers: a cohort study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14(1), 1-10.
Wood, A. C., Blissett, J. M., et al. (2020). Caregiver influences on eating behaviors in young children. Journal of the American Heart Association, 9, 10.
Hamburg, M. E., Finkenauer, C., & Schuengel, C. (2014). Food for love: the role of food offering in empathic emotion regulation. Frontiers in Psychology.