Most parents know, our children mimic our actions - good or bad. This is true for our eating and exercise behaviors as well.
Perhaps the best way to lead your kids is by setting a good example. One way to start is to have your children become familiar with healthy foods. Involve them with meal planning, grocery shopping and preparing foods. This will not only help them eat healthier, it will give them lifelong skills.
Another strategy that has worked well for many families is to create a healthy food environment in the home such as having a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter, keeping chopped veggies ready to eat in the refrigerator for snacking, and limiting the amount of prepackaged ‘junk food.’ Planting your own garden or taking your children to the local farmers market to explore produce is another great way to get them familiar with healthy, local foods.
What about picky eaters? Children develop and learn taste preferences early in life. Research suggests the best way to help them expand their food selections is to continue to serve them a variety of foods. If they are routinely only served chicken nuggets and fries then they are only going to want chicken nuggets and fries. Children will eat what they are familiar with and what they see you eating. If they refuse a certain vegetable on their first try that is okay. It is a good idea though to continue the exposure to a variety of vegetables so they become familiar with those foods and learn what they do like. Forcing a child to eat a certain food will usually only result in stress on them and you.
Hiding the veggies? This is certainly one strategy to incorporate better nutrition into your little one. However, it is good to be aware that kids need to learn and recognize what whole foods look like and learn to appreciate their unique texture and flavors. Also, being mindful of how we serve fruits and vegetables matters. Hand a child a whole apple and they may eat some of it, but slice it up and serve it on a plate and they will likely eat the whole thing. See below for some ideas on incorporating more veggies into your child’s diet.
Typically when planning a meal for children it is best to go back to the basics. A healthy, well-balanced meal will include lean protein, vegetables, fruit, plant based oils or fats, dairy or dairy alternative (soymilk, almond milk), and whole grains. A vegetarian or vegan diet can also be suitable for children, but will need careful planning to ensure adequate intake of protein. For more information, you can visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website: www.eatright.org/kids.
Simple lunch ideas (ages 3 and up):
-Bento box style: cheese cubes and/or shelled edamame, whole grain crackers, sliced avocados, and fresh berries
-Mini pizza: whole grain English muffin topped with no sugar added tomato sauce, low fat mozzarella cheese or dairy alternative rice shreds, veggies, and nitrate free turkey pepperoni. Serve with sliced apples.
-Banana quesadilla: whole wheat or gluten free tortilla spread with natural peanut butter/almond butter, or sunflower butter and sliced banana. This one is great for breakfast or lunch.
-Cottage cheese topped with fresh fruit, whole grain crackers, baby carrots and/or sliced cucumbers with a Greek yogurt based ranch dip or hummus.
Healthier swaps for old favorites:
Fruit snacks: traditional fruit snacks that many of us grew up on are essentially candy with added Vitamin A and C. Instead, try dried fruit without added sugar (Sun-Maid sour raisin snacks, dried apricots or figs). Another option is to find a fruit snack made with only fruit juice (Target’s simply balanced fruit strips).
PB&J: Swap the traditional peanut butter for a natural peanut butter with only one ingredient: peanuts. (Try Crazy Richard’s brand). Try to find a jelly without added sugar or artificial sweetener (Thrive Market fruit spread) or use a sliced banana to replace the jelly. Replacing the white bread with whole grain bread or whole wheat tortilla is also a great idea.
Mac and Cheese: Replace the traditional pasta with garbanzo bean pasta to boost the protein and fiber. If possible, make your own homemade cheese sauce (typically only three ingredients and easy to prepare). Simple Truth organic alfredo sauce is not a bad option in a pinch. You can also add chopped broccoli and cauliflower in with the pasta or serve it on the side.
Chicken nuggets: Most frozen prepackaged nuggets are not the best, but it may be easier than you think to prepare your own using lean skinless chicken breasts or tenderloins. They can be baked and then placed in the freezer for up to six months. Applegate natural chicken nuggets are one of the better frozen options for the busy times.
Ways to “hide” veggies:
When making lasagna puree spinach, broccoli or other green veggies into the sauce.
Mix mashed parsnips or cauliflower in with potatoes.
Add carrot juice to orange juice (2 ounces OJ to 4 oz carrot)
Add veggies to smoothies. A healthy smoothie would contain plain Greek yogurt, fresh or frozen fruit, greens, and water or milk to thin the texture. You could also add some nut butter for protein and healthy fat.
Add finely diced or pureed vegetables into soups, stews and casseroles.
Add pureed or finely chopped veggies into meatballs, meatloaf, or hamburgers or try veggie burgers.
Remember, it will take time and patience to lead your child towards a healthy lifestyle. In addition to guiding them to make health food choices, also encourage family times with no distractions, and family exercise time such as a walk at a local park or riding bikes. With persistence and routine, it will fall into place.
Guest blogger: NOMS Dietician, Megan Turner, MS, RDN, LD
Megan is accepting new patients via Telemedicine and in-office visits at 2500 W. Strub Road in Sandusky, Ohio. Learn more here: https://nomshealthcare.com/physicians-services/physicians/megan-k-turner/