Raising a healthy eater can be a tricky process. It’s a balancing act of many aspects: providing nutritious foods, encouraging new foods, allowing independence, teaching regulation of “junk” foods, allowing for a child’s individual food preferences, allowing for a child’s natural growth pattern and daily appetite changes, peer pressure, and teaching a child how to cook and prepare food. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? I’d like to break down the complication into manageable steps.
- First and most importantly, remember that your child was born with the natural ability to monitor her intake. Just like a newborn baby knows when she is hungry and when she is satisfied, your child knows how to do the same. However, if food is used as comfort, reward, or punishment, then it interferes with the child’s natural ability to regulate intake. So, by encouraging her to clean her plate or eat “just one more bite”, you may be encouraging her to eat more than she needs. Trust that she knows when she has had enough. This leads into tip 2.
- Establish regular eating times throughout the day and stick to them. For example, offer breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, and dinner. If your child is not hungry at lunch, then let him know that he doesn’t have to eat, but he will not be allowed to eat until snack time. Letting a child feel hunger is good. It’s good for him to feel hunger, satiety, and occasional fullness. But, it’s not a good idea to let him graze all day. Predictability is very important, especially for young children.
- Keep a variety of foods stocked in your kitchen and limit the junk foods. Some ideas are whole wheat/grain bread, crackers, pasta, rice, muffins, cereal, oatmeal, and tortillas; skim or 1% milk, lower-sugar yogurt, and cheese; canned tuna, peanut butter, leftover meats (chicken, pork, beef), low-fat deli meats, and beans (if she won’t eat beans from the can, try pureeing them with some spices and serve with crackers or vegetables as a dip); fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables and fruit; and 100% fruit juice and water. Although it’s best to save the junk foods for special occasions, I do believe it’s important to keep a small selection at home to teach the child how to regulate her intake.
- Avoid trans fats, added sugars, processed foods, fast foods, and fried foods. You already know that these foods should be limited in your diet, so the same goes for your children.
- Don’t give up when your child doesn’t like new foods. It may take up to 20 exposures of a new food before the child tries it! Pair an unfamiliar food with a familiar food when you are serving it and try not to pressure the child to eat it.
- To ensure variety in your child’s diet, offer 2 different foods groups at each snack and 3 different food groups at each meal. Don’t worry if some days your child eats no fruit and all dairy and grains because the next day he might want only fruit and meat. The average intake over a week is the most important number to monitor.
- Allow your child to help choose, prepare, and clean up the meals as much as possible. Not only is it quality family time, research shows children who are involved in meal preparation tend to be healthier eaters.
- For a personalized recommendation for your child, visit mypyramid.gov, where you can enter the age, height, weight, and sex of the child and receive an estimation of how much of each food group she should aim for on a daily basis.
- If you have any specific concerns about your child’s diet, please contact your pediatrician or dietitian.
- Remember all children are different and these “tips” are just that; they are not hard and fast rules. Most importantly, offer a variety of foods at predictable times and allow your child to decide how much to eat. Raising a healthy eater takes a lot of patience and practice! If you would like more information on child nutrition, please check out Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming by Ellyn Satter, Just Two More Bites! by Linda Piette, and Baby Bites by Bridget Swinney. These are invaluable references.
Please share: What’s your biggest challenge with raising a healthy eater?