I don’t know about you, but I grew up in the ’90s eating Pop-Tarts for breakfast and canned SpaghettiOs for dinner. The other day, while I was in BJ’s grocery shopping for my 4-year-old son’s school lunch, I saw those foods from my childhood and more. After the wave of nostalgia passed, I thought about how unhealthy those meals I grew up eating really were.
I want my son to eat healthier than I did and I think we’re on a good path so far. I know there are no guarantees and he may still end up eating noodles every day when he gets to college, but a mom has got to try.
Today is National Child’s Health Day, and while that comprises the physical, mental and emotional health of a child, I wanted to focus on the importance of kids’ nutrition.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says healthy eating can help facilitate growth and development in our kids and prevent health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The recommendation is that they begin following healthy eating patterns as young as two years old.
Ideally, your child should be eating a mix of fruits and veggies, whole grains, proteins, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. There should also be a limit to how much solid fats, added sugars, and salt they’re consuming. To keep kids on this path, it often has to begin with making healthy eating a lifestyle and keeping it fun and easy, says Ashley Carter, co-founder and director of EatWell Exchange and registered dietician in Miami. And that means not only keeping healthy foods in plain sight, but also educating them on the importance of eating in a balanced way.
“Teach your child in a way they understand the importance of healthy food and how it benefits their body,” she says. “Explain which foods help their hair grow, how it can keep them from staying sick, or even how it can help them stay focused in class.”
Jasmine Westbrooks, co-founder of the same non-profit organization and a registered dietician, adds that a parent’s own eating habits matter too. “What you say matters, but it’s also what your child sees you do, so lead by example,” she says. “It’s common for your child to try to sip from your cup, or put their little fingers in your plate. So make sure that you have nutritious foods so they’ll follow your lead to a healthier lifestyle.”
Despite trying to keep things healthy at home, kids may not always be open to trying new vegetables and healthy foods. Parents often try a range of tactics including “hiding” vegetables in foods they like. While it may get your kids to eat them, you want to create positive messaging around veggies vs. making it something that needs to be kept secret or that they’re tricked into consuming. To get your kids to try new foods, consider having them taste the food as a science experiment, says Johane Filemon, registered dietician and nutritionist based in Atlanta. “Have them describe the look, color, and feel of the food. Have them taste the food and then describe taste and texture and how it feels in their mouth. Kids love a good experiment.”
The dietician also recommends starting with a pea or thumb-sized amount when introducing new foods as large portions may overwhelm kids. If they’re overwhelmed, they’re less likely to even want to try a little bit of the new food.
Another tip for keeping the messaging around healthy foods positive is to avoid rewarding children for eating them. You especially should avoid rewarding them with sweet treats and the like, says Carter.
“Shift the mindset of ice cream to spending quality time at the zoo, park or watching a movie at home. Also, don’t use water or healthier foods as a punishment because that could deter them from seeing it as a positive option,” she says.
That said, we can’t always protect kids from unhealthy and processed foods as they’re likely to be exposed to them outside of the home. It’s also important to remember that a few unhealthy foods or snacks every now and again shouldn’t derail the values you’re trying to instill in them. The key is to keep the processed foods out of the house and stock up on plant-based foods, Filemon says.
“In general, if at least 80% of the time you are consuming plant-based foods, you are doing well.”
If your kids are nagging you about buying Cheetos or candy every day, you can find healthy alternatives. Westbrooks explains that we’re often searching for comfort or a specific texture or taste in those treats. To help their craving, look for options that have the characteristics of the unhealthy foods they want or will give them similar satisfaction.
“For example, the crunch of chips, try a very crunchy or even sour apple or my favorite, which is popcorn,” Westbrooks says. “For something sweet, try frozen berries, frozen fruit or freeze some yogurt. It resembles the texture of ice cream. Don’t stop there. Add a dollop of whip cream and some mixed nuts for protein to give that salty sweet taste but packed with fiber, which supports heart health.”
Carter adds that you can combine dark chocolate chips, which are high in antioxidants to fight inflammation, with mixed nuts and a few dried fruits like raisins or cranberries as the ideal go-to snack. Other snack ideas you can try with your littles include no-bake oatmeal protein bars, homemade blueberry and banana muffins, and peanut butter energy balls.
Helping your kids foster a healthy relationship with food isn’t something accomplished quickly. It is an accumulation of good habits. Remember to be flexible, keep it fun, involve them in the process, and focus on the endless benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle along the way.