Every day we learn more about the importance of nutrition in the health of children, both now and as they become adults. And every day, many parents find themselves begging, bartering and bewildered in the face of getting their kids to eat healthy food.
Childhood is the time to learn healthy habits to last a lifetime. Healthy eating helps your child feel better, be at a healthy weight, and even perform better in school and sports.
Here are some tips that can help:
• Make healthy food more available. Your children are more likely to eat healthy snacks if you have them ready to eat. For example, have washed-and-ready fruits and veggies in baggies in the refrigerator. Divide up a package of whole grain crackers into individual servings. Keep string cheese and yogurt in a reachable place in the refrigerator.
• Involve your children in food preparation. If your child helps make a recipe—whether it’s a toddler simply “dumping” in ingredients, or an older child helping to measure, chop, etc. they are more likely to eat what they helped make.
• Grow a garden. Whether you simply grow some tomato plants in pots, or plant a large garden, your child will learn more about nature and be more likely to eat if it is the “fruits of their labors.”
• Find at least one food from each food group that your child likes. Kids may only like carrots and peas as their vegetables for a while. So serve those frequently, but introduce other foods as well.
• Require a “try” at each meal. When you serve your children dinner, give them a tiny portion of all foods being served. So if dinner is chicken, roasted potatoes and broccoli, serve about a bite of each. Assure them that once those samples are gone, they can have more of whatever they wish. It can take several tries of a food for someone to develop a taste for it. By giving these tastes at the beginning of meal, when the child is more hungry, it’s likely to go better.
• Help your child understand that trying new foods is a sign that they’re growing up.
• Don’t use food as a reward. Telling a child that they can have their dessert if they eat their vegetables sends the message that vegetables are something to dread and “get over with.”
• Limit access to unhealthy foods. If you don’t bring cookies, chips, soda, sugary juice and other unhealthy snacks into the house, then it won’t be there for children to eat. Instead, keep plenty of healthy snacks on hand.
• Set a good example. If you want your children to take good care of their bodies through eating well, then let them see that you’re doing the same.
• Encourage everyone to drink more water. Most liquid calories are empty, in that they have little nutritional value and simply raise blood sugar and can cause weight gain. And I prefer that children avoid artificial sweeteners such as those found in “diet” drinks.
• Occasional treats are OK. The key is teaching what occasional means. Going out for ice cream after a recital or big sporting event on a weekend is fine. But every day doesn’t need to have some sort of sweet celebration. Other “rewards” like a family game night, Saturday hike or bike ride, etc. can develop healthier habits—and lead to nice family time together.
• Don’t be a short-order cook. Prepare dinner, and maybe have a back-up option for something your child really doesn’t like, but making a separate dinner for your kids because they will only eat certain foods will set them—and you—up for this pattern for a long time.
• Let older children help with meal planning and grocery shopping. These are needed life skills, and you can challenge them to learn more about reading labels and identifying healthy—and not-so-healthy—ingredients in foods. They may also be more willing to try new foods if they helped pick them out.
As a doctor and mom, I know some of this is easier said than done. But stay with it. Good habits happen over time, and once your children are adults, they will be grateful that you instilled healthy habits while they were young.
Dr. Karim is currently accepting patients—ages birth through 17—at her practice at Deaconess Clinic Boonville.