Eating habits are learned behaviors. Even if you’re the model of perfect parenting, no kids eat all meals and snacks at home, and once they leave the house, temptation is everywhere—from heavily-advertised fast foods to grandma’s well-intentioned cookie plate. 

To teach children to select the right foods when they are left to their own devices, it’s essential to begin at home. Discuss with your kids how they can make better food choices while you listen to their concerns and desires. Let them know you respect their preferences but are worried for their well-being for both now and in the future. 

The benefits of healthy eating during childhood and adolescence go beyond looking good and maintaining an optimal weight. Many illnesses can be prevented through proper nutrition, including diabetes, certain cancers and cardiovascular disease. Research has shown that heart disease begins silently in childhood, even though symptoms may not appear until adulthood. Children need a balanced diet that supports optimal growth and development and provides enough energy for physical activity. Here are seven ways you can help your kids get off on the right foot: 

Be a good role model. We can’t fill our cupboards with packaged cereals and microwave popcorn and expect our kids to eat as though they grew up on an organic vegetable farm. In order to be good role models, we must educate ourselves first, and then practice what we preach. If you don’t like a particular vegetable and are vocal about it, odds are you will pass on your disdain to those in your home who look up to you. If you’re continually on a diet or have erratic eating habits, your children will grow up thinking that this sort of behavior is normal. Be honest with yourself about the kinds of food messages you’re sending. If you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full, your kids will learn to do the same. 

Take your kids grocery shopping. Help children learn about food and food choices by taking them to the grocery store with you. Of course, it’s probably easier—and faster—to go alone, but when they see food in its natural state, they will have an opportunity to explore and ask questions. If your child appears interested in a certain type of fruit or vegetable, take it home and experiment together by preparing it in a dish. Involve your children in cooking or snack preparation, and they will be more likely to eat new foods, including fruits and vegetables.  

Make mealtime special. Above all, sit down and enjoy your food. Make a ritual out of the main meal and give everyone a specific task, such as setting the table. Use cloth napkins to set a more formal tone (and make a better choice for the environment!). Candles aren’t just for adult dining—they can create a calming vibe and will show kids that mealtime is special. 

Don’t be a short-order cook. Guard against the trap of making one meal for the adults in the home and another for the kids. Prepare the same meal for everyone in the family, including foods that your children like and something that may be new to them. Children may need time to warm up to new things; if you keep giving them their old standbys, they’re not going to branch out. Be patient.  

Don’t buy into marketing for kids. Since television ads are so ubiquitous and influential, it’s a good idea to limit television viewing to channels with fewer commercials—or, better yet—to videos with no commercials. Another option is to record special programs on TV so you can edit out the advertisements. While you can’t keep heavily processed foods out of their diets forever, the longer you limit exposure while instilling healthy eating habits, the more likely your children will be to make better choices when left to their own devices.  

Don’t use food as a reward, bribe or punishment. Yes, it’s tempting, but don’t give in! Stickers work just as well for rewards, and you won’t be setting a precedent for using food as a bribe as your child gets older. Of course, sometimes, you will want to take the kids out for ice cream after a good soccer game; just don’t use it as an incentive for a good game. Likewise, don’t punish children for not eating certain foods—it will only reinforce the negative relationship with the food, which could last the rest of their lives. Having less healthy foods occasionally keeps them from becoming forbidden, and possibly even more appealing. Try calling candy, soda and cookies “sometimes” foods to reinforce the point that they are special treats. 

Keep some perspective. Understand that what your kids eat over time is what matters. Having an occasional ice-cream sundae or caramel corn at the state fair are some of life’s real pleasures. As long as you balance these times with smart food choices and physical activity, your children will be fine.