1. Teach healthy habits from the start. If children are encouraged to try a variety of foods from the start of their table-food days, eating well can become a lifelong habit. It can be easy for you to find a variety of foods from all food groups – grains, vegetables, fruits, protein and dairy – that your child will like. All it takes is a little planning and a strategy.
2. Incorporate balance, variety and moderation. All food groups belong in a healthy diet. Organizing your visit to the grocery store will help ensure you come home with a variety of good tasting foods that are also good for your family’s health. Youngsters need essential nutrients to grow strong muscles, bones and teeth as well as to maintain energy; thus, a child’s diet has major impacts on his or her development.
3. Respect your child's preferences. Children have personal likes and dislikes, but disliking one food should not eliminate an entire food group. Those who don’t like broccoli may still enjoy green beans or asparagus; however, don’t give up on a food too quickly. If your child won’t eat broccoli the first time you serve it, try again. A new food may not get a fair chance if the child is feeling tired or crabby the first time it is served. Just like adults, children can acquire a taste for certain foods over time.
Serve a new food with a favorite and encourage children simply to taste the new item rather than insisting they eat a whole serving. A disliked food may need to be served 20 times before a child begins to like it. Parents can be positive role models by eating the same foods they encourage their children to eat. Be creative—if your child doesn't like milk, try a smoothie, yogurt, frozen yogurt or hot cocoa.
Your imagination can be your best resource in helping your child have a healthy, well-balanced diet. Sometimes the unexpected makes mealtime more fun, both for parents and kids. So it’s okay to let your child eat anything nutritious at mealtime. If breakfast is a problem, for instance, don't be afraid to serve a peanut butter sandwich, cold pizza or vegetables and dip. Or serve pancakes with fruit for dinner.
4. Make snack time nutrition time. For children, snacks should be part of a total nutrition plan. Because they burn lots of energy, children need a lot of calories. Plus it takes lots of calories just to grow! They can’t get them all at meals because their stomachs are small, so snacks are an important way to pick up nutrients missed at a previous meal. It is important to think of snacks as nutritious gap-fillers, not treats.
Many foods that are commonly referred to as “junk food” (empty calories) are typically high in fat and sugar and low in nutritional value. It won’t hurt a child to eat cookies, candy or chips occasionally, but make sure these foods don’t replace nutritious foods.
Children have different calorie needs depending on their age, activity level, gender, weight and height. A 1 year-old needs about 1,000 calories a day and nearly every calorie needs to come from basic food groups. An 8 year-old, however, can eat 1,800 calories daily and cover basic needs in about 1,200 calories, leaving room for a few “fun” snacks.
Some very popular foods are, in fact, quite nutritious. Pizza, for example, covers three or four of the food groups. Low-fat cheese and yogurt are good supplements for a child who won’t drink enough milk to meet his calcium requirements. And some cookies, such as vanilla wafers and animal crackers, contain low amounts of sugar.
5. Make eating fun. Children prefer foods that are brightly colored and fun, like sandwiches shaped with cookie cutters. An always-popular snack at St. Louis Children’s Hospital is “ants on a log” – celery filled with peanut butter and topped with raisins. Planning nutritious, well-balanced meals and snacks is one of the most valuable gifts you can give your child.
When a child eats well, deliver plenty of praise. It will become evident that eating nutritious food is the best way to get lots of positive attention. Playing “airplane” or “choo-choo” with a child who won’t eat, rewards negative behavior and sends confusing signals to kids. If a child won’t eat, simply excuse him from the table.
6. Don't force joining the "Clean Plate Club." Remember the “Clean Plate Club” and your mother insisting on “just one more bite”? Except in rare cases, a child’s body tells him how much food is needed. Put simply – when he’s hungry, he’ll eat. It is much more important to ensure that the food your child does eat is nutritious, than to focus on the serving size.
With the increase in obesity rates among children, pediatricians, dietitians and other health professionals stress the importance of developing healthy eating habits early in life. Learning to recognize when you are full and to stop eating, even if there is still food on your plate, is a skill necessary to maintain a healthy weight.
7. Limit "convenience" and “fast” foods. While it is not a good idea to build a child's diet around prepared "convenience" foods or restaurant "fast” foods, these can provide nutritious meals occasionally, if they are selected with the MyPlate symbol in mind.
Many prepared foods, such as canned and frozen dinners, contain high levels of salt and fat, but an increasing number of these foods are being made with good nutrition in mind. Parents can evaluate food labels and choose those foods that contain less salt and fat than similar products. Whenever possible choose foods that are labeled "reduced fat" or "reduced sodium." However, foods that are marketed as “fat free” are not typically the best choice, as they are often higher in sodium and additives.
“Fast” foods also tend to contain too much salt and fat, but careful selection of items can make them fine for an occasional meal. Most of the food groups are covered with a hamburger, bun, milk and salad; omit or share an order of french fries. Grilled chicken sandwiches are healthier than hamburgers but breaded chicken patties, since they are fried, generally contain more fat than hamburgers. Not only do fried chicken and fish contain more fat, what we put on them adds even more: tartar sauce, mayonnaise and salad dressing are high in fat compared to mustard and catsup, which are fat free. Pizzas and tacos contain a variety of grain, milk, meat and vegetable products, too.