Tips from Experts to Feed Kids Better

We moms know that at least some of our own eating and other habits get passed on—intentionally or not—to our children. For example, our older son inherited his parents’ sweet tooth (though I think in our family, his reigns supreme). And our younger son is very portion conscious, especially when it comes to vanilla ice cream, his treat of choice. Of course as a registered dietitian nutritionist and mom I do my best to set a “good” example about eating a nutrient-rich diet and living an active lifestyle. While I’m far from perfect and make mistakes along the way, I try to pass on the idea that eating well and nurturing our bodies helps us look and feel our best. It also can help us enjoy other perks—for our family, that includes better performance in the classroom or at work, on the basketball or squash court or while walking a half marathon.

Even if your kids are at healthy body weights, they (like us) can always make improvements to eat less and better—to not only have more energy to perform optimally, but to keep their hearts and other vital organs healthy.

In honor of Mother’s Day, below you’ll find some great tips several registered dietitian moms have used with own families to encourage nutritious and healthful food-related habits.

Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD coauthor of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, has always structured meals and snacks at the table (and not watching TV or snacking all day) to help her kids manage their hunger and get the right amount of food for their bodies.

Jacobsen also says, “Because kids can’t eat what they aren’t exposed to, I’ve always make it a point to expose my kids to a variety of nutritious foods throughout the day. Even if they only look at the food, they are getting familiar with it and eventually will try or eat it.” When serving new foods, Jacobsen always has an expectant attitude even if she doesn’t think her kids will eat them. “Kids will rise and fall to your expectations in the eating department,” she adds.

Melissa Halas-Liang, MA, RD, CDE, creator of Super Kids Nutrition, teaches her daughter about proper portions, balancing foods and about each food’s unique health benefits that work for your mind and body. She says, “When my daughter was 4 years old, she came running up to me at a birthday party and asked for a second piece of cake. I replied, “One piece is just right.” A parent next to me said, “She’s a kid, let her have a second piece of cake now while calories don’t count.” She replied by saying that with all the party food the kids already enjoyed, her daughter was learning habits now that will work for her for life.”

Now in 3rd grade, Halas-Liang’s daughter loves organic lean beef jerky. According to Halas-Liang, “My daughter has learned to balance out the higher sodium content by choosing a high potassium fruit or vegetable. Sometimes she’ll say, “We need to make a smoothie—I’m packing beef jerky today”—and that makes me so proud.” Halas-Liang says they use the same principle of balance for burning up energy when her family bikes to the ice-cream store. She says, “In pre-k and kindergarten, we focused on choosing foods that helped her think her best, jump her highest and fight off colds.” Halas-Liang says her daughter now frames food choices by saying things like, “I’m going to go pick some blue-berries so I can out smart you!”

Jill Castle, MS, RDN, coauthor of Fearless Feeding,  always serves fruit and/or veggies with every meal and snack. She says, “While this is easy to do when kids are in highchairs, parents often forget to keep going as they get older.” Castle adds, “When kids consistently see fruits and veggies throughout theday, every day, they become a normal part of the meal and lose their drama.”

For meals, Castle uses family-style feeding (parent decides the menu for the meal, sets all items in/on table or island/counter, and kids serve themselves): She has found the strategy works in her home and with countless families with whom she has worked. “It works because kids have a choice. Kids almost always eater better (healthy choices and the right amounts for their appetite) when they can have a say in what they eat (from the parents menu plan, of course) and how much,” says Castle. She notes, however, there’s a glitch in the approach. She says, “If children have been too controlled with eating (for example, portions or types of foods are restricted), they may go hog-wild at first when given free reign in this manner. This is usually a temporary phase while they learn to trust that they can meet their appetite and food needs at the table without restriction.”

Castles also closes the kitchen between meal and snack times. She says, “This “rule” keeps little (and big) kids from grazing, and sets a tone that says when we eat a meal or snack we sit and enjoy; and when we’re not eating, we are doing other things (especially, not eating).”

Suzanne Farrell MS, RDN has always been a fan of establishing regular eating times. According to Farrell, “Serving a regularly scheduled balanced breakfast, snack, lunch, snack and dinner within certain times prevents crazy, grazy behavior and helps them to show up to mealtime with a healthy appetite!” She also makes meal-time a nag and whine-free time that’s peaceful and positive. Farrell also practices the division of responsibility approach created by registered dietitian Ellyn Satter where parents determine the what, when and where and kids are in charge of how much they eat and whether or not they eat it.

When it comes to portions, Farrell says less is more. “Because the portion sizes that we see have more than doubled in the past two decades, parents may have a tendency to serve more than little stomachs can handle. I always start small and allow my kids to ask for more.” She also loves getting her kids involved in family meals. According to Farrell, “Home is the University of Eating where kids first learn about food, so involving them when you can, such as creating the grocery list together, food shopping and age appropriate food prep and cooking is invaluable.”

Because her kids always seemed to be starving at the end of the day, especially when they were little, Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, coauthor of The Baby & Toddler Cookbook got into the habit of starting her kids on their dinner time veggies or a salad before they actually sat down to dinner. She says, “That would guarantee that they ate their veggies without a fuss since they were starving and it also gave us some additional quality time in the kitchen.”

When Ansel’s kids started grade school they became reluctant milk drinkers. Rather than argue with them about drinking their milk, she put a squirt of chocolate syrup into it. She says, “That simple strategy seemed to renew their interest in milk and it was a much lower sugar alternative than ready made chocolate milk.” (Interestingly, Ansel says that by the time her kids were in middle school, they stopped drinking chocolate milk in favor of plain milk.)

When short on time at lunchtime, Ansel puts together a fruit, cheese and nut plate. She says, “This meal has always been a huge hit and I love it because it’s plant-based, works in a serving of fruit and dairy and takes only minutes to throw together.

Mitzi Dulan, RD, Author of The Pinterest Diet, introduced her kids to a wide variety of foods at a very young age. “I don’t classify foods as “kid” or “adult” food. My kids were eating sushi by age 2 and I never acted like they weren’t supposed to eat foods like vegetables,” Dulan says. She has also encouraged her kids to help her cook and to take a taste of new or less familiar foods from the time they were little. She adds, “Now that they are 10 and 12, they always try new dishes I make as well as new foods when we eat out at restaurants.”

How do you help your kids eat less and better?

Image of young mother and her toddler washing vegetables via shutterstock.

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