Getting Kids to Eat Healthy Foods

Kids are the toughest food critics, but you can please them with meals that are actually good for them.

Fresh Fruit, Veggies, and Whole Grains

How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids
How to Eat Healthy: Raising Nutrition-Smart Kids

As my oldest son, Eli, has grown from an independent-minded toddler into a self-determined preschooler, trying to get him to eat the way I want -- with enough of the good stuff and not too much junk food -- has been a challenge, to say the least.

I did everything right from the start, introducing him as a baby to lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats with little to no added sugar or salt. But as he grew, he began cutting back on fruits and vegetables and wanted just plain pasta for dinner or a dry bagel or waffle for breakfast.

Like every busy parent, there are times when I slip and begin relying too much on convenience foods, which tips the whole family's diet out of balance. To get us back on track, I focus on the basic food groups, adding whole foods and taking out the highly processed foods. You, too, can balance your child's eating habits so he gets all of the nutrients he needs to grow and thrive, with less added sugar and fat. Here's a step-by-step guide from nutrition experts and other moms.

Variety Is Key

A balanced diet is one that includes lots of variety from all of the food groups (fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, meats and beans, and oils). But how do you know if you're giving your children adequate amounts? Don't stress. Look at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new Food Guide Pyramid. Its Web site, mypyramid.gov, allows you to type in an age and activity level to get specific recommendations on how much your child should eat from each food group.

The one downside is that the Pyramid only offers information for children over 2 years old. In general, kids between ages 1 and 2 need an average of 900 calories per day from the combined food groups, plus 100 discretionary calories. What are these discretionary calories? Basically, after all the servings from the basic food groups have been met, you can give your kid a reasonably sized treat. Although it could be a sweet, try to satisfy his need for a snack with wholesome foods that fit into the main food groups -- and try to combine two categories. For example, spread peanut butter on apple slices or top sliced pineapple with cottage cheese. Says Melissa Kornfeld, of Atlanta, mom to 2-year-old Kayla: "We stumbled upon freeze-dried green beans at a camping store, and Kayla just loved snacking on them. She also loves dried apples and strawberries for dessert." Toddlers, ages 2 to 3, and preschoolers, ages 3 to 5, need 1,000 calories and 1,200 calories per day, respectively, plus 150 discretionary calories.

Take It Meal-by-Meal

It's important, however, not to overanalyze your child's daily diet by focusing on every calorie he consumes. You want your kid to develop a healthy appreciation for food. So even though you shouldn't be serving cola for breakfast and chips for lunch, don't force your child to eat the last string bean on his dinner plate either. And there will be days when he eats more than usual or is interested in only one kind of food. This is fine -- it's what kids eat over the course of a week that matters. On the flip side, you should talk to your child's doctor if he doesn't want anything but grilled cheese sandwiches or seems to be overweight.

Often, children want what they see, so model good eating habits and think ahead about what to serve. If it feels overwhelming to plan out an entire day, you can take a meal-by-meal approach to balancing your kid's diet. For an easy visual, divide up the plate by food group: "Make half the plate fruits and vegetables, a quarter starch (whole grains, potatoes, or corn), and a quarter lean protein (meat, beans, or fish) or dairy," says Elisa Zied, RD, mom of two and author of Feed Your Family Right! (John Wiley & Sons). Also, make at least half of the grain servings whole grains, and use healthier oils.

To see if you're on track, make a chart with your child to hang on the fridge, and put stickers on each food group as she eats it throughout the day. Kids will be more interested in trying the foods on their plate if they're involved in meal planning. This strategy works for Sari Gallinson, of Bridgewater, New Jersey, who takes her 4-year-old son, Ben, along on grocery trips to let him choose a fruit or vegetable, and even has him help when she's preparing meals. She gets Ben to pick healthier snacks, such as yogurt or fruit, by telling him these types of foods will help him grow and become "fast," a skill he's very interested in.

Quick but Healthy Meals

It's easier to keep track of what your family eats when you do the cooking, but who has time to make everything from scratch? There are lots of shortcuts that make a meal just as quick to prepare as ordering takeout or microwaving a ready-made entree. The upside: your dishes will be lower in fat and sodium.

Zied suggests this bean burrito recipe, which her 4-year-old likes: open and rinse one can of black beans; spread 1/4 cup on a tortilla (try whole wheat); sprinkle with shredded cheese and microwave for 30 seconds. You can also make boil-in-bag brown rice, adding frozen vegetables during the last five minutes of cooking; then drain the rice and veggies together, and toss them with cooked chicken breast, plus a splash of low-sodium soy sauce. Ilyssa Rubenstein, of Manalapan, New Jersey, mom to Sofia, age 2, makes whole-grain mac 'n cheese and then hides steamed veggies in the dish. Cooking tip: whole-wheat pasta mixed with evaporated skim milk and shredded cheddar cheese is just as fast to make as boxed macaroni and (powdered) cheese.

By sticking with whole foods most often and eating fast foods only on occasion, you're providing a nourishing diet for your child that's easier to keep in balance. And when you do have to fall back on convenience foods, select those with the shortest ingredient labels -- they usually contain fewer additives and preservatives.

Gently Introduce Nutritious Foods

If your child's diet is a bit unbalanced -- she eats too many refined carbs and not enough fruits or vegetables -- you can gradually tilt it in the right direction. Start by focusing on making the fare she eats better. Instead of white bread or spaghetti, give her one of the new whole wheat white breads or pastas (a mix of whole wheat and refined flours).

Another tactic: "Gently introduce new foods along with foods kids already like so you don't create a battle around food," says Elizabeth Ward, RD, mom of three and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler(Alpha). Use chicken soup as a vehicle for veggies by adding diced frozen carrots, peas, and baby corn. Spread mashed avocado on turkey sandwiches. Or mix lentils or beans into noodles and meat sauce.

And what should you do when you face the inevitable challenges? "Stay cool and flexible," Ward says. If your child is always asking for dessert, sneak a healthy component such as mango chunks on top of low-fat ice cream. If too much juice is the issue, try using boxed waters instead, or make ice cubes out of 100 percent juice and add them to water. When junky snacks are a problem, "just don't buy them, so your child will have to choose something healthy that you do have," advises Ward. Dried fruits, such as cranberries, raisins, and apricots, are great alternatives; they're sweet yet offer more vitamins than gummy fruit snacks made from corn syrup. (Note: Some small, chewy foods might be a choking hazard for kids under age 4, so if you want to give these snacks to younger children, check with your pediatrician first.)

Breaking bad habits isn't easy, but it's worth it. I try to balance my son's diet now so that he might order broccoli instead of pepperoni on his late-night pizza in college.

Next: Serving Sizes

Serving Sizes

Oils:
Use plant oils, such as canola, olive, and sesame, rather than butter; their mono- and polyunsaturated fats are healthier for the heart and circulation. Daily needs: 1 teaspoon for kids ages 1 to 2; 1 tablespoon (or 3 teaspoons) for kids ages 2 to 5

Meats/Beans:
Choose lean sources of protein, such as poultry, sirloin, fish, tofu, and legumes, because they are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. Fish also contains brain-boosting and hearth-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Daily needs: 1.5 ounces for kids ages 1 to 2; 2 ounces for kids ages 2 to 3; 3 ounces for kids ages 3 to 5

Dairy:
For toddlers ages 1 and 2, give only whole-milk dairy products, because they need the extra fat for their rapidly growing brain. After age 2, you can switch to low-fat or nonfat milk, cheese and yogurt. Daily needs: Two 8-ounce cups of milk for ages 1 to 5.

Fruits/Vegetables:
They're loaded with vitamins A and C, potassium, iron, and a whole host of phytochemicals -- found to prevent long-term diseases like cancer and heart disease. Daily needs: 1 cup fruit for kids ages 1 to 5; 3/4 cup veggies for ages 1 to 2; 1 cup veggies for ages 2 to 3; 1.5 cups veggies for ages 3 to 5.

Grains:
Carbohydrates found in grains help the brain and body to function properly. Give kids more heart-healthy, digestive-friendly fiber by making the majority of grains whole grains (e.g., brown rice, whole wheat pasta and bread). Daily needs: 1.5 ounces for kids ages 1 to 2; 3 ounces for children ages 2 to 3; 4 ounces for kids ages 3 to 5.

What's on the Menu

Use this sample meal plan as a guide for what to serve from the food groups.

Ages: 1 to 2

  • Breakfast: 1/4 cup whole-grain cereal, 1/2 cup whole milk; 1/2 cup mandarin oranges.
  • Snack: 1/2 cup sliced strawberries; 1/2 cup yogurt.
  • Lunch: 1/2 whole wheat English muffin; 1/4 cup light tuna mixed with 1 teaspoon mayo; 1/4 cup peas; 1 cup water.
  • Snack: 1/4 cup mashed sweet potato; 1/2 cup whole milk.
  • Dinner: 1 ounce grilled chicken cut up; 1/4 cup diced carrots; 1/2 cup whole milk.

Ages: 2 to 5

  • Breakfast: 1 cup whole-grain cereal, 1/2 cup low-fat milk; 1/2 cup mandarin oranges.
  • Snack: 1/2 cup sliced strawberries; 1/2 cup low-fat yogurt.
  • Lunch: 1/2 whole wheat English muffin; 1/4 cup light tuna mixed with 1 teaspoon mayo; 1/4 cup peas; 1 cup water.
  • Snack: 1/2 cup mashed sweet potato (for kids ages 2 to 5 add 1 teaspoon trans-fat-free margarine); 1/2 cup low-fat milk.
  • Dinner: 2 ounces grilled chicken cut up; 1/2 cup diced carrots; 1/2 cup low-fat milk.

Shara Aaron, RD, mother to Eli and Oliver, is on American Baby's advisory board.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2007.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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