It's hard enough for parents to feed their children well and instill in them healthier eating habits both at home and when on the go. But while parents have plenty of control over the foods and beverages they bring into their homes to feed their families, it becomes more of a challenge to make sure children are fed well when they're at daycare, at preschool, or with a nanny, a babysitter or even grandma.
Of course parents have to choose their battles when it comes to raising and feeding kids, especially as they get older and increasingly choose foods and portions on their own. But while kids are still young, it's important for parents to help set the stage for healthier habits—not only because kids' food preferences are still evolving, but because what and how much they eat impacts their growth, development and future health.
Because others may play a role in caring for—and feeding—children, it's important that parents initiate a conversation so that everyone is on the same page to help kids meet, but not exceed, their needs and have a positive feeding experience. To help parents do just that, here are 8 tips from the wonderful Melissa Halas-Liang, MA, RDN, CDE, founder of SuperKids Nutrition and author of the Super Crew books Super Baby Abigail's Lunch Time Adventure and Havoc at the Hillside Market.
Partner up. Try to establish a working partnership with your child's daycare center or preschool. Make suggestions and offer to help implement them, whether that means volunteering occasionally at lunch or chipping in to equip the facility with the tools it needs. Instead of being critical of the facility, take a positive and proactive approach to help improve the way your child eats at his or her home away from home.
Empower them. A recent study out of Penn State University investigated the powerful effect of choice on preschoolers' fruit and vegetable intake. Researchers found that allowing preschoolers at daycare to choose between three different types of fruits and vegetables at snack time, rather than only one type, led them to put more fruits and vegetables on their plate and subsequently eat more of them. You can encourage your child's daycare center (or even your nanny or the grandparents watching your children) to empower kids during meal times by giving them a few healthy choices. For example, you can ask, "Would you like red peppers or carrots, apple slices or orange slices?" Doing so can result in a child eating more of the healthy option they chose than they might have otherwise. If you put the proper spin on it and explain to the daycare center or to someone watching your child that this strategy not only empowers kids but it decreases food waste and helps them avoid food struggles, they're more likely to heed your advice and try out the strategy.
Let them play. When you're at your child's daycare facility or preschool, take a look at the play kitchen area and see if the fake food set includes lots of healthy foods. Some research shows that children are more open to trying foods that they see often in their environment. If your child regularly plays with plastic broccoli, they are more likely to try eating it at home!
Serve Fruits and Vegetables First. Ask to observe a mealtime. Once you have a good relationship with your child's daycare center (or wherever or with whomever your child eats some meals), offer some suggestions. For example, encourage them to serve fruits and vegetables as an appetizer rather than with the main meal. One study found that kids who were served fruits and vegetables first, before receiving their entrée, consumed 25% more fruits and vegetables than those who received vegetables with their main meal. Though it may seem like a small difference, over time switching up the mealtime routine can be a quick, inexpensive, and effective way to improve children's eating habits away from home. You can also encourage the daycare center to share with other parents any positive results they see as a result of implementing this strategy.
Encourage Whole Foods. If you have a parent snack rotation donation at your child's daycare or preschool, why not buy something you'd want someone else to serve your child every day. Some research suggests that whole, unprocessed, unrefined foods provide your kids with the most nutrients and fiber to keep kids full and satisfied longer. For example, a sliced apple will satisfy a child longer than applesauce, which will satisfy longer than apple juice. Similarly, grapes are more satisfying than raisins, which are more satisfying than a fruit roll up. You can also send some of these foods with your child that he or she can choose from when being cared for by others.
Suggest snacks. Sometimes it can be difficult for daycare, preschool professionals and caregivers to come up with new snack ideas for the children. So why not approach them with a helpful list of healthy, satisfying snack ideas. Examples include mixed frozen fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, and mango; 100% whole grain crackers, ideally without added sugar; cheese sticks; vegetables arranged on a platter in the shape of a rainbow; or a dip station for fruits and vegetables with hummus or herbed yogurt dip for veggies and peanut butter or vanilla yogurt dip for fruit.
Make food fun. Offer to help out at the daycare center or preschool a few times a year by doing a food-based project. Kids are much more likely to eat well if you make eating well fun. For example, kids can plant their own seedlings and learn how to care for their plants. Herbs like rosemary or chives are easy to care for and perfect for young children. Alternatively, you can suggest that the kids go on a field trip to a garden to learn about the connection between nature, the food they eat, and their own growing bodies. Even reading children's books on gardening can help pique children's interest in fruits and vegetables. A fun food game is to compare the sounds different foods make when you make or eat them. Have children try crunching on carrots or listen to popcorn being air-popped. Kids can also get excited about other foods and cultures by having themed lunch days eg. offering Irish foods on St. Patrick's Day, or serving Native American foods on Columbus day.
Let them cook (or create). For those times when your child is spending the day or several hours with grandma or another relative, why not suggest they cook a meal. You can choose a healthy recipe that you know your child will love and provide the recipe and ingredients to the caregiver. If cooking isn't an option, the caregiver and child can draw a colorful healthy plate of food or some favorite foods. You can then laminate the masterpiece and keep it at the caregiver's house to reinforce healthful eating habits the next time the child is there.
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Image of couple and children playing with toys via shutterstock.