By Vanessa Chrisman, clinical dietitian at CHOC
Healthy eating for kids is an essential part of their overall healthy lives. For children, it’s especially important because their growth and development depends on it. Parents play a large role in providing a healthy diet for their children, as well as establishing lifelong habits when it comes to food. In today’s world of fad diets and conflicting headlines about nutrition and health, it can be confusing for parents to navigate how to feed their children appropriately. Here are some of the most common nutrition questions I get from the parents of my patients.
Typically, toddlers are the ones who go on food jags – wanting to eat the same food at every meal, day in and day out. It often is a show of independence. This can happen with older children too. While it’s okay to eat the same healthy food every day, it’s the parents’ job to choose what foods to offer at meals. As an example, maybe your child wants cereal at every meal. Rather than provide this, offer other healthy foods and tell your child that she can have cereal for breakfast the next day. Your child then gets to choose whether she eats what is offered at that meal. If she doesn’t, don’t worry. Simply be patient and wait until the next snack time to offer more food. When your child becomes hungry, she will most likely eat what is offered.
Start by serving a fruit and a vegetable with every meal. Serve the foods that he already accepts and eats. Introduce one new fruit or vegetable at a time. Make new foods more appealing by cutting them into fun shapes and sizes. Vegetables can be spiralized to look like pasta. Fruits can be cut into stars or dinosaurs with cookie cutters. Set a good example by eating fruits and vegetables regularly as a family. As parents, you are powerful role models for your children who are always watching and listening. Let your child help pick out fruits and vegetables in the grocery store as well as wash them at home. Fruits can be added to smoothies and yogurt and cereal. Vegetables can be cooked into spaghetti sauce or added to stir-fried rice or soups. Sometimes children will want to try new fruits and vegetables if you serve them with a favorite dip or sauce. Consistently serve fruits and vegetables at your meals and be patient. Limit grazing between meals to build hunger and avoid preparing a special meal for your picky eater. Eventually your child will come around and try some of these new foods. Praise the behaviors you want to encourage and give less attention to the pickiness or refusal to try new foods.
Many parents worry that their toddler is not getting enough protein in their diet. The truth is that it is quite easy for a toddler to meet his protein needs. Toddlers ages 1 to 3 need 1.2 grams of protein for every kg of body weight. This means that a healthy 2-year-old boy who weighs 27 pounds (or 12 kg) needs about 14-15 grams of protein per day. His protein needs could be met simply by: drinking eight ounces of one percent milk (eight grams protein) and eating two tablespoons of ground turkey or one large egg (seven grams of protein) in a day. If he drinks sixteen ounces of milk, his daily protein intake increases to 23 grams of protein, which is 150 percent of what he needs. Unless a toddler is eating a very restrictive diet, it’s rare for him to consume a diet low in protein.
This is a challenge that many parents face. The first step is to cut back on the amount of juice or soda that is offered and consumed. Ideally, cut out soda and dilute juice with water. Limit juice to eight ounces or less per day. Provide your child with their own special bottle or cup. Consider using a special straw that they can pick out for themselves. Infuse the water by adding sliced lemons, limes, cucumber, berries, or mint to make a “spa water.” Keep water cold in the fridge. Try using frozen berries instead of ice cubes. Be a role model and carry a water bottle around for yourself. Offer stickers as an incentive for every time your young child drinks a cup of water. On a typical day, kids up to age 8 should drink the number of 8 oz. cups of water equal to their age. For example, a five-year-old should drink five 8-oz. glasses of water every day.
While some parents assume that their child will gain more weight if they are eating all day long, this is not often the case. For underweight children, there can be a tendency for parents to offer food to the child all day long, as well as allow them to ask for food whenever they want it. This does not allow for natural hunger or appetite to build. Instead, the child grazes on food throughout the day, often eating enough to tame hunger but not enough to truly feel full. The best approach is to follow a feeding schedule with planned meals and snacks every two to three hours. Only water should be consumed in between eating times. This helps build hunger. To help with weight gain, added fats and high calorie foods can be offered or used with meals. Sometimes an oral supplement is needed as well if the child is unable to consume enough food to fuel healthy weight gain. Speak with your child’s pediatrician and a registered dietitian for more individualized advice.
This is a common challenge for many parents. Often, their child isn’t hungry or doesn’t have enough time to eat before heading off to school. To minimize the morning rush and make time for a healthy breakfast, prepare the night before. Close the kitchen by 8:00 p.m. to prevent unneeded late-night snacking. Make sure that your child goes to bed on time so that it’s easier for him to wake up in the morning. Have quick, healthy options on hand like low-sugar cereals with low-fat milk, fresh fruit and string cheese, whole grain muffins, or whole grain toast with peanut or almond butter. Consider offering non-breakfast foods as another way of enticing your child to eat. For those who don’t want to eat, sometimes drinking a fruit and yogurt smoothie works instead. For teens who skip breakfast in the hopes of losing weight, let them know that people who skip breakfast tend to gain weight, not lose. If all else fails, send your child with a healthy snack to be eaten at school.