American children tend to be picky eaters, but your child doesn’t have to be. Processed meats, such as chicken nuggets and hot dogs, and sugary snacks, such as cereal and fruit juices, make up a large part of children’s diets, but these foods provide little in the way of nutrition.
A well-balanced diet supports healthy child development and reduces the rate of diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and certain cancers, but many parents struggle to incorporate fruits and vegetables into the meals of picky toddlers and school-aged children. Here’s how to balance your kids’ nutritional needs with making food appetizing for them.
The Early Days
A preference for flavors starts in the very beginning. Amniotic fluid is flavored by the foods a mother eats, so babies learn to like the same foods as their mothers before they are even born. Similarly, the flavor of breast milk changes with a mother’s diet, so babies learn to prefer certain flavors before they actually eat them. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, try to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables in order to expose your baby to a wide range of flavors.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing solid foods at about six months. A child who is ready for solids is able to sit and keep his head steady, and opens his mouth when food is approaching. The timing is important. Giving a baby solids before he is ready increases the likelihood he will be overweight or develop food allergies. If you wait too long to introduce solids, your child may resist more flavors and textures as he grows.
You should introduce solids gradually. Begin with single-ingredient foods, such as iron-fortified rice cereal, avocado or banana. After introducing a new food, wait at least three days before adding another new food, so that you are able to recognize any reaction your child has to the food. Signs of a reaction include hives or a rash, coughing, wheezing and/or swelling of the lips or tongue. If you see any of these, call your healthcare provider immediately, as your child may suffer from a food allergy. Another reaction a child may have is food sensitivity. Symptoms of food sensitivity include nausea, bloating and diarrhea, which you can discuss during your child’s next well visit.
As you begin feeding your baby solids, make sure you expose him to a variety of different foods, flavors and textures. You can give him store-bought foods — or even better — you can make your own baby food by pureeing vegetables or fruits. Let your baby play in his food and make a mess, and allow him to feed himself. Feeling the food lets him explore his senses and accept different textures.
Babies take time to adjust to new foods. Be sure you introduce a new food at least 10 to 15 times before determining your baby doesn’t like it. Try to introduce as many foods as you can between 6 and 12 months, but avoid honey and cow’s milk until after your child’s first birthday (full-fat yogurt and cheese are fine before then).
Developing Healthy Eating Habits
It’s not uncommon for toddlers who were previously good eaters to suddenly refuse certain foods. It’s important to avoid power struggles, as your goal is to get your kids to enjoy healthy foods, and to develop healthy eating habits. This will help you avoid becoming a short-order cook who prepares a separate meal for each family member.
Establish a rule that your child only eats at mealtimes, and established snack times. Don’t force your child to eat at mealtime, but don’t allow her to snack throughout the day or carry around a cup of juice or milk. This will fill her up and make her less hungry at mealtime, and she will be less likely to try new things.
Never bribe your child to eat new foods or clean her plate. Introduce one new food at a time, and make sure the meal contains other foods you know your child enjoys. Also, introduce foods similar to her favorites.
Helping Your Kids to Eat New Foods
* Substitute mashed sweet potatoes or cauliflower for mashed potatoes.
* Add bananas, berries and spinach to smoothies.
* Make your pizza at home, and hide the vegetables under the cheese.
* Puree some vegetables, and add them to pizza or spaghetti sauce.
* Add spinach or peppers to eggs.
* Add sweet potatoes or pumpkin to pancake batter.
* Don’t expect your child to eat an entire serving of a new food. One or two bites is a great start.
Help your child develop an appreciation of food. Allow him to help plan, shop and cook. Also, be sure to talk about the food to help your child learn. Discuss the texture, smell, taste, color and what it does for your body — or take your child to a local farm and let him see where his food comes from. The more your child is involved in the entire process, the more accepting he will be of new/different foods.
Probably the most important factor in developing healthy eaters is setting a healthy example for your child. Make sure he sees that you enjoy eating healthy foods. Strive to have regular family meals, and be sure to serve your child the same things you eat. Your child should understand that adults and children eat the same things, and that fruits, vegetables and lean meats taste good. Keep electronics turned off, and talk about the food during meals. Your child should learn that mealtime is for sharing and enjoyment.
What Should Kids Eat?
A well-balanced diet is sometimes difficult for parents to imagine. The United States Department of Agriculture has redesigned the food pyramid into a simple model: a plate divided into four equal categories of fruits, vegetables, lean protein and grains, with a side of dairy. With each meal, try to serve equal portions of these food groups, while limiting salt, added sugars and saturated fats. These empty calories found in many children’s foods do not provide much nutrition and often discourage kids from eating healthier options.
These days, superfoods are gaining attention for their health advantage. They have been found to reduce inflammation, lower body fat, cholesterol and blood pressure, and protect against heart disease and cancer. Generally, superfoods are bright in color due to their high concentration of healthy antioxidants that help fight disease. In order to maximize your child’s nutrition, try to serve colorful meals with some of the superfoods (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health) listed below.
Growing healthy eaters can be challenging, but the sooner you start working on your child’s diet, the easier it will be for him to eat a variety of healthy foods. Eating habits start at the beginning of life, and continue to develop over the first few years. Try to make eating enjoyable for your child, and set a good example with the diet you consume. Be sure to provide a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. With a little work and patience, your child will love them in no time!
Michelle Dorsey Graf, MSN, CFNP, is an NP working in pediatric primary care. She is also a nursing PhD student at Vanderbilt University, and her research interests involve early childhood feeding and risk factors for obesity.