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How to Prepare Your Child For Healthy Eating at College

Moving to a college campus is a big change for teenagers and their parents. Living away from parents gives children new independence and responsibilities. Parents want their children to be as prepared as possible for living in a college dorm. Healthy eating is one aspect of independence that your children will need to manage.

Waiting until the last few weeks before moving day may be a little too late. Ideally, preparing your child to be an independent healthy eater starts when they are very little. From the time they start eating, they can be learning about healthy eating habits. As they get older, their independence with planning and eating meals grows, and with that, their ability to be an independent healthy eater. Now is the time to start to prepare your child for healthy eating at college!

young adult reading from a cookbook in a kitchen

Teach With Role Modeling

Teenagers learn from what they see. When parents choose foods for themselves and plan meals for their families that are nutritious, it establishes norms for the child. When you pack lunch for your yourself or your child, be sure to include a balanced meal. Children will see that and learn what lunch is meant to be. Prioritizing a nutritious breakfast also helps. Sit down for breakfast in the morning, and your children will observe that eating breakfast is a good way to start the day.

You can even verbalize to your teenager why you are making a particular choice. For example, you can say, "I am hungry, and I think I am going to have nuts for a snack because that will keep me full and satisfied," or, "I am making fish and potatoes for dinner, but I did not have time to prepare a vegetables, so I will put some frozen vegetables in the microwave to heat. This way we will have a complete meal." Seeing how you make food decisions can help them be prepared for healthy eating at college.

Teach Meal Planning

As your child gets older, you can involve them with meal planning. When deciding what to cook for dinner, ask them to choose meal components. If an important part, such as protein, is missing in their chosen meal, you can use that as a teaching opportunity as to why that food group is important.

You can also have your teenager help you plan an entire week's worth of meals. With this, you can show your child how to incorporate a variety of proteins, vegetables, and carbohydrates throughout the week. Remember to give them the leeway to choose their preferred flavors and cuisine to give them ownership. For example, you child may want to try a spicy marinade on chicken or a sweet dressing on a salad. Maybe your child wants to plan to have Indian food or Thai food one night for dinner. Again, allowing them to choose their preferences gives them ownership of the meal.

While planning meals with your teenager, you can begin to show them that certain dishes may be more time-consuming and need pre-prep time in order to be eaten on a busy night. You can teach them what types of foods are quick to prepare last minute, which need little hands-on time, but longer cooking time, and which foods require a lot of hands-on time to prepare.

Don't forget about meal planning for non-homemade meals! Teach your child which food groups to consider when choosing food at the campus dining hall or at takeout. When you eat out, you can show your teenager which options are proteins, vegetables, and carbohydrates. This way they will understand how to plan a balanced meal when they have to choose from a set of options.

When teenagers know how to meal plan for homemade meals and for meals prepared out of the home, they will be more prepared for healthy eating at college.

Teach Grocery Shopping

When you are meal planning with your child, you can start to teach them how to shop for groceries. Show them how to assess what is at home in the pantry and create a list of items to purchase. When at the store, show them how to choose quality produce, compare prices, and navigate the sections of the grocery store. This will give them the confidence to go grocery shopping on their own. If teenagers know how to go grocery shopping, they will have the skills to get the food they need for healthy eating at college.

Teach Cooking Skills

Although many college students rely on their meal plan from the dining hall for most of their food, there will be times that they will benefit from knowing how to cook. From the time your child is young, involve them in your food prep. As age appropriate, children can peel vegetables, cut vegetables, measure ingredients, and read recipes out loud as you cook. Even just watching, which is all the youngest children can do, is an important part of learning. Teenagers can be given responsibility to prepare a single simple dish for a meal, and as their skill and confidence increases, their cooking responsibilities at home can also increase. Knowing how to cook is crucial for being prepared for healthy eating at college.

Talk to Your Teenager About the Food Environment

The food environment on a college campus has a lot of challenges. The food might be unfamiliar, there are more options that your teenager can choose from, and there may be more fast food and other less healthy options. Additionally, there are many new pressures at school, including peer pressure about dieting. Understanding the food environment can help them be prepared for it, and they will be empowered for healthy eating at college.

Preparing Your Child for Healthy Eating at College

Living independently on a college campus requires many important skills that children can learn while they still live at home. Use these ideas to help prepare your child for healthy eating at college.


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