Raise a Healthy Eater

How to get your child started on the right nutritional track.

Eating FAQs

child reaching for a sandwich

Ted Morrison

Want to make a million-dollar investment in your child's health? Put stock in nutrition. A child who grows up with a balanced diet and a healthy attitude about food will be less likely to have problems like diabetes or heart disease as an adult. "The science is very clear that kids form lifelong food preferences and behaviors when they're young," says Parents advisor Connie Diekman, RD, president of the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Whether you have a baby or a fourth-grader, it always pays to kick nutrition up a notch. We teamed with the ADA to bring you a must-read guide that's filled with healthy ideas.

Q. I hate it when my husband gives our baby something unhealthy, like a cookie or ice cream. Am I overreacting?

An occasional bite won't hurt, but it's smart to avoid these types of sweets, especially since studies show that babies tend to eat less healthfully once they switch to finger foods. It's much better for your baby to learn to love the taste of nutritious foods, including a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, says Diekman.

Q. My infant wants to nurse nonstop all day and several times during the night. Could he be eating too much?

For now, let your baby eat whenever he wants to. Babies are naturally equipped with the ability to know how much they need -- a skill you shouldn't mess with. Plus, babies go through mini growth spurts, when they need to eat more. "If your baby's growing well, you can rest assured that he's getting the right amount," says Elisa Zied, RD, an ADA spokesperson and author of Feed Your Family Right! If you're worried that he's sucking just for comfort, talk to your pediatrician or a lactation consultant.

Q. My toddler is constantly asking me for snacks. Should I try to cut back on between-meal munching?

Snacks are a vital part of a toddler's diet, since her stomach can't hold enough food at meals to keep her nourished for more than a few hours. Snacks are also a great way to get nutrients missing from meals. That said, limits are important. First, be sure your child is actually hungry and not just bored. Another common snack trap: pacifying your antsy kid with munchies when you're out and about. "Nibbling all day teaches her to eat when she's not hungry, and this could cause her to mindlessly overconsume calories," says Zied. Instead, plan a small midmorning and midafternoon snack (plus a bedtime snack if she's hungry). Serve snacks at the table whenever possible.

Q. My 6-year-old is a lot chubbier than his friends. What should I do?

Talk to your pediatrician, who can check the growth charts and tell you for sure. Strict diets aren't good for children -- and since kids grow quickly, it's usually better to slow or stop weight gain rather than trying to drop pounds. Make small, calorie-shaving changes for the whole family: Switch to fat-free milk, eliminate sugary drinks, limit take-out food or pizza delivery, stock up on healthy snacks (and buy fewer chips and cookies), and serve smaller portions at mealtimes. Explain that you're taking steps to improve everyone's health, and don't single out your child or talk about weight, says David Grotto, RD, a spokesperson for the ADA. Also, encourage him to be active by taking him to the park, going for family walks after dinner, or signing him up for an after-school sport.

Perfect Portions

Learning what a real serving looks like is crucial in a world where portions have gotten gigantic. Every day, a 2-year-old should get about 1 cup each of fruit and veggies, 3 ounces of grains, 2 ounces of meat or beans, and 2 cups of dairy. Check out these ideas.

Breakfast

  • 1/2 cup oatmeal made with milk
  • 1/2 cup blueberries
  • 1/2 cup milk

Lunch

  • One half of a grilled cheese sandwich made with whole wheat bread and one half slice of cheese
  • 1/2 cup cooked carrots
  • Small apple cut into slices
  • 1/2 cup milk

Dinner

  • One quarter of a chicken breast
  • 1/2 cup broccoli
  • 1/2 cup brown rice
  • 1/2 cup milk

Drink Up!
Beverages are an important part of your child's diet, since they keep her hydrated and provide valuable nutrients. But it's smart to follow these daily guidelines, since drinking too much -- or too little -- can drown out the benefits.

Milk
How Much: About 2 cups
Quick Tip: At age 2, switch from whole milk to skim or 1 percent. Milk is important for growing bodies, but drinking more than 3 or 4 cups a day may squelch your child's appetite.

Water
How Much: About 4 cups
Quick Tip: Offer water to your child frequently or keep a water-filled sippy cup easily accessible. A squeeze of lemon, a silly straw, or ice cubes in fun shapes may encourage him to drink more.

Juice
How Much: 3/4 cup (or less)
Quick Tip: Choose only 100 percent juice varieties. Although a recent study found that juice isn't linked to extra pounds in kids, too much can still cause diarrhea and fill up little tummies, so it's best to stretch small portions by diluting them with water. Serve juice at the table, since all-day sipping can cause tooth decay.

Next: Dos & Don'ts

Dos & Don'ts

Do

  • Respect your child when she says she's done. Coaxing her to eat more may lead to chronic overeating (and set her up for weight problems later).
  • Set a good example. If you want your little guy to drink milk or eat his veggies, do the same yourself.
  • Let her make choices. For example, give her two options for breakfast or two veggie choices at dinner. "You can still be the 'manager' of the meal, but decision-making empowers kids," says Malena Perdomo, RD, an ADA spokesperson.
  • Stick to a schedule. Serve three meals and two to three snacks at roughly the same time every day. "Kids thrive on structure," says Zied.
  • Make meals together. Even young kids can do simple tasks like washing grapes. When he helps out, your child will be more likely to eat and enjoy the meal.

Don't

  • Worry about day-to-day fluctuations in hunger. They're totally natural at this age. As long as your child's growth is normal, don't push him to eat.
  • Serve big portions. Large amounts of food overwhelm little kids and may actually discourage them from eating.
  • Make any negative comments about food. Avoid saying that something tastes bad or will make you fat (and tell older siblings to do the same). Instead, talk about the qualities you love about foods, like the crunch or bright color.
  • Rush your child through meals. Give him enough time to finish at his own pace.
  • Give praise just for clean plates. Instead, give her props when she eats a healthy food or tries something new.

Build a Better Breakfast

Studies show that kids do better in school -- and also tend to be leaner -- when they eat breakfast regularly. The best morning meals are a mix of whole grains, protein, and fruit.

Protein

  • Low-fat milk (skim or 1 percent)
  • Slice of cheese or packet of string cheese
  • Hard-boiled or scrambled egg
  • Canadian bacon
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Peanut butter or other nut butter

Grains

  • Low-sugar whole-grain cereal (if your kid protests, mix in a little sugary cereal)
  • Whole-grain toast (look for breads with at least 2 grams of fiber per slice
  • Mini whole-grain bagel
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole-grain waffle or pancake
  • Whole wheat tortilla

Fruit

  • 1/2 cup 100 percent juice
  • 1 piece fresh fruit
  • 1/2 cup berries or chopped fruit such as melon
  • 1/2 cup canned fruit (packed in fruit juice)
  • 1/2 cup frozen fruit
  • 1/4 cup dried fruit such as raisins, apricots, or blueberries

Food Rules to Break

"You're not leaving this table until you finish those beans, young lady!" Does this order ring a bell? It's time to retire some of the classic mealtime tactics our parents used -- but not all of them. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, having family food rules such as serving fruit with breakfast and limiting sweets helped kids eat more produce and less fat overall.

Forget These Rules

  • "Clean your plate." Finishing everything doesn't make sense -- especially considering today's mammoth portions at restaurants, says Zied. Instead, encourage kids to stop whenever they're full.
  • "No snacking." Snacks are actually a great way to squeeze in nutrients. The trick: Keep healthy snacks visible and accessible. Put a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter, washed and cut veggies or your kids' favorite flavor of low-fat yogurt on the bottom shelf of the fridge, and whole-grain crackers front and center in the pantry.
  • "No dessert until you finish your vegetables." Using dessert -- or any food -- as a reward or punishment can lead to unhealthy attitudes about eating, and that could set your child up for weight and food issues later.

But Follow These

  • "Drink your milk." School-age kids need at least two to three servings of dairy per day, but milk-drinking takes a nosedive as kids get older. Make milk a staple at meals, but if your child doesn't like it, serve another source of calcium (such as yogurt, cheese, or fortified cereal) -- and sneak milk into foods like oatmeal, soup, and pudding.
  • "Sit at the table." Don't let your child stand at the kitchen counter or lounge in front of the TV during dinner, because that encourages mindless eating. Use mealtime as a time to catch up and talk about everyone's day.
  • "Try it; you'll like it." Although you shouldn't force food on your child, ask her to take a small taste. If she doesn't like it, she doesn't have to eat more. "That takes pressure off kids, so it's easier to just take a bite," says Perdomo.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. 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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