By Stephanie Chang, clinical dietitian at CHOC
As a registered dietitian and a mom, I always try to keep my family eating healthy. When people imagine what a dietitian feeds her kids, most people assume we eat perfectly healthy all the time. However, I also struggle to get my kids to eat enough fruits and vegetables, just like everyone else.
Getting my family to eat healthy starts with the choices that I make at the grocery store. What foods I put in my cart influences the food choices that my family makes at home. Since younger children tend to eat most of their meals with family or at school with lunches they brought from home, I like to make sure there are plenty of good choices at home.
Older children and teens may be eating more meals outside the home with friends. Family has less influence on what they eat at that point so it’s important to teach good choices at an early age. If you feel your teen hasn’t had the chance to make good food choices, don’t worry. It’s better to start now while they still live at home with parents.
These are some of the choices that I try to make when offering food to my kids. Keeping things simple and easy is key, since life is so busy.
Water provides hydration without adding calories and sugar. At CHOC, we recommend that children drink the number of 8 ounce cups of water equal to their age, with a maximum of 64 ounces for children over age 8. This means your 1-year-old would drink one 8-ounce glass or water, your 5-year-old would drink five 8-oz glasses of water, etc. I found that my kids prefer ice water and will usually drink more if the water is cold.
Low-fat dairy: milk, cheese and yogurt
Low-fat dairy foods provide a good source of calcium and protein. They are also usually fortified with vitamin D. I try to choose lower sugar options when it comes to milk and yogurt. That doesn’t always work, but I want my kids to have good calcium intake rather than arguing about sugar. I can always cut back on sugar somewhere else in their food choices.
Avoid preservatives, additives and high fructose corn syrup
I always read ingredients on any packaged foods I buy. Usually a simple and easy-to-understand ingredient list means the food is less likely to contain a lot of preservatives and added colors. I try to avoid purchasing foods with high fructose corn syrup and keep things as close to natural as possible. The exception would be vitamins and minerals that are added to enhance the food. Those do have chemical sounding names, but are just added nutrients.
Eggs are a good source of protein. The egg white contains most of the protein in the egg and children generally prefer the white over the yolk. Another perk for parents is that hard-boiled eggs are easy to prepare for a family who doesn’t have much time to cook.
Fruit (and hopefully vegetables)
I always offer fresh fruit and a vegetable with each meal. My kids will almost always eat the fruit and only sometimes the vegetable. I feel that it is important to offer these foods every day, but not force them to eat it.
Whole grains and fiber
Foods made from whole wheat flour or other less processed grains and flours provide more fiber in the diet. Sometimes I find it difficult to get my kids to eat the high fiber choice, but when I can, I think it’s well worth the effort for them to learn that breads and grains are not all white.
Sometimes I buy organic chicken and sometimes I buy regular chicken. More importantly, I’ve found that chicken is a good protein source that my kids will eat all the time, as long as it’s prepared in different recipes. Some kids don’t like beef or pork as it may be hard to chew or too dry. I don’t want my kids to eat processed meats (like deli meats, hot dogs and sausage) all the time, so I find that choosing chicken works the best.
Veggie straws or veggie chips
Yes, you read that correctly. I do feed my kids chips when they’re starving between meals. They are high in sodium just like any other chips, but veggie chips don’t usually contain the artificial colors and flavors that traditional chips do. I find that veggie straws make a good car or airplane snack because they can be eaten neatly.
Well-rounded school lunches with emphasis on protein, fruit and vegetables
When packing preschool lunch, I always try to keep it well rounded and make sure to include a protein, fruit and vegetable. I also include a starch or carbohydrate food in the lunch, but I don’t emphasize that as the main part of the meal. Most preschool snacks offered by the school are a starchy or grain food, like crackers or cereal. I let my kids eat the carbohydrate snack with their classmates and eat the other healthy foods for lunch from what I pack from home.
Home cooked meals
During the school and work week, I want my family to eat home-cooked meals. This requires a lot of meal planning, but this allows me to make healthier choices and save money at the same time. We try to limit restaurant food to weekends and only one meal in a day. Get healthy meal prep tips for busy parents.
As you can see from my list, it isn’t perfect. I don’t always buy organic, grass-fed, or the latest trendy health food. My kids do eat junk food and bug me to buy them cookies and candy. However, I feel that these basic and simple choices that I can make daily will improve my family’s health. These choices are available at the regular grocery store and don’t require trips to specialty stores. It’s important to remember that no child is going to eat perfectly all the time. Families are always busy, but making good food choices is important and doesn’t have to take a lot of time.