Proper nutrition is important during childhood in order to help children thrive and grow.

And while there are many reasons why students may eat unhealthy - from the lack of food to limited access to healthy foods - unhealthy eating habits can have adverse effects on their physical and mental health.

Children with poor diets are more likely to be overweight or obese, experience mental and emotional health problems and fail to thrive academically and socially. They’re also more susceptible to long-term health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease and osteoporosis.

Unhealthy eating habits include consuming a lot of junk and fast food, overeating or overindulging, snacking endlessly and refusing to eat fruits and vegetables.

Some students may even live in food deserts, or areas with limited access to fresh, healthy foods due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers' markets and healthy food providers. These students are also more likely to consume processed or fast foods of lower nutritional value.

Fortunately, after school program leaders have the opportunity to encourage healthy eating habits in students and expose them to healthier food options. Here are a few ways program leaders can encourage healthy eating in their students:

Plan healthy meals together. As with most things, eating healthy is easier said than done. Research and discuss the components of a healthy meal. For instance, a healthy breakfast may consist of eggs, fruit and a slice of whole grain toast. Then, have students plan healthy meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This Healthy Choices Play Food Set can help make meal planning more realistic for students.

Explore the science behind healthy eating. How much fat is in a potato chip? How does sugar affect your body? Students can answer these questions and more with food science experiments designed to promote healthy eating. The goal is to help students understand what they’re putting into their bodies and its effects in order to encourage healthier eating habits.

Start a garden. Studies show that kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they help grow them. Allow students to participate in planting, watering, weeding and other garden maintenance activities. When fruits and veggies are ripe and ready to be picked, use them for snacks, sell them at the local farmer’s market or send them home for students to share with their families. Here’s a bonus: gardening doesn’t only promote healthy eating. It also fosters math and science skills, builds confidence and teaches responsibility, among other benefits. Check out this resource for 40 fun gardening activities for kids.

Visit the local farmer’s market or grocery store’s produce section. Let students explore different types of fruits and vegetables, discover the foods that grow near where they live and learn how a farmer grows and sells his food. For extra fun, assign each student a fruit or vegetable before heading to the market. Then challenge students to find (and taste, if possible) the food at the market. This is a great way to show students the healthy foods that are available to them.

Conduct a taste test. Kids may avoid a certain food due to its color, texture or smell. But they won’t know if they like it unless they try it! Introduce students to new fruits and vegetables with routine taste tests. They can be served raw, cooked or as a smoothie (which will require a blender and a few extra ingredients). Taste tests can also help to expand students’ palate, which further promotes healthy eating.

Watch What’s On Your Plate? with students. This kid-friendly film follows two eleven-year-old girls as they explore food systems in New York City. Throughout the film, they talk to food activists, farmers, new friends, storekeepers and their families to understand what’s on all of our plates. Conversations address the origin of the food they eat, how it’s cultivated, how it’s prepared, food packaging and more. Available on Netflix and DVD, What’s On Your Plate? will encourage students to examine their own eating habits.

Model healthy eating. When it comes to teaching healthy eating habits, you must practice what you preach. Bring in healthy meals and snacks for yourself. Also, provide nutritious snacks for students to eat after school. You can also involve students by allowing them to make their own snacks, like banana snowmen or celery snails.

After school program leaders can play a key role in fostering healthy eating habits in the students attending their programs. Use the above strategies to help students make better food choices now and into adulthood.