By Shonda Brown, RD, CSP, CNSC, clinical dietitian at CHOC
Kids’ food preferences are influenced in large part by their caregiver’s own food preferences, as well as the behavior they model. Too often parents want their children to eat healthy, but they either don’t offer healthy options or don’t eat healthy foods themselves.
Helping children develop healthy eating habits early in life as well as assuring adequate nutritional intake during a time of rapid growth and development is paramount in reaching and maintaining health well into adulthood. In fact, research has shown that exposing toddlers to a variety of foods and flavors increases the number of foods accepted in later childhood. Unfortunately, less than half of children 2-17 years old meet their recommended daily intakes of vegetables, seafood and beans, and less than 20 percent of their recommended intake of whole grains, according to a 2010 study by The Healthy Eating Index, a report of the United States Department of Agriculture. A report from the Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study showed that approximately 25 percent of children failed to eat a single serving of fruit or vegetables on the survey day and up to 85 percent of children consumed some type of sweetened beverage, dessert or salty snack. Sadly, of the vegetables consumed, french fries were the most popular.
More than one quarter of total daily calories are consumed outside the home, highlighting the need to assure meals purchased at restaurants are providing children with balanced nutrition. The National Restaurant Association introduced the Kids LiveWell program in 2011 in an effort to improve the nutritional quality of food and beverages offered on kids’ menus. Improvements over the past few years include restaurants now providing fruit and vegetables as side options instead of fries or chips, and milk or water instead of soda. However, only 9 percent of meal combinations offered at the top 50 restaurant chains meet the Kids LiveWell nutritional guidelines.
Here is what you can do to turn the tables on “kids’ food”. Incorporate the following tips to help children choose healthy foods and develop healthy eating patterns that may last a lifetime.
- Prepare meals together
Have your child create a new meal or snack from a few healthy ingredients. Talk about how it smells, tastes, looks and feels. Children as young as two years old can help out in the kitchen. You can have your child wash fruits and vegetables, or stir ingredients. Children are more open to trying new foods if they have opportunities to explore and learn about the food before they eat it.
- Make healthy foods fun
Be creative when offering new foods. You can make bugs with fruit kabobs or faces with vegetables on homemade pizza. Giving foods fun names is always a hit – like “monster brains” for cauliflower or “silly billy green beans.”
- Help them learn to love a variety of healthy food
Start by setting an example – a child is more likely to accept a new food if they observe parents, siblings or friends taste and enjoy the food. Food acceptance is also related to exposure. It often takes 10-15 times before a child may accept a new food so it is important to be patient as well as persistent. Some helpful tips are
- Offer small portions at first
- Offer a new food with familiar foods
- Allow your child to decide if they are going to try the new food
- Offer praise when a child tries a new food
- Make mealtimes family time
Children who eat meals with their families at home have better quality diets and higher intake of fruits and vegetables. Remove any distractions such as TV or iPads from the dinner table. Allow children to make choices and serve themselves – this empowers them and gives them confidence. Enjoy time together as a family and talk about fun things that happened during the day.
- Make healthy choices when dining out
There are no magical foods that only kids eat. Children can be served the same foods as the rest of the family. If you are out at a restaurant, you can skip ordering from the kids menu and order a healthy option from the regular menu. The portion size will likely be more than what your child needs, so you can share between siblings or bring home leftovers. If you order from the kids menu, chose the fruit, yogurt or veggie sides instead of high calorie, low nutrient sides such as chips and french fries. Skip the sugary beverages such as soda and chose low fat milk or water instead.
Keep healthy foods available whenever you can, and maintain a relaxing and encouraging environment around mealtimes. You never know, your child may just munch on Swiss chard picked fresh from the garden, beg that you prepare scallops for dinner or think raisins and nuts are dessert.