How to Raise a Healthy Eater (in a Junk-Food World)
We teamed up with the experts—nutritionists from the American Dietetic Association—to give you the best advice on getting your kids to eat right.
Scary fact: French fries are one of kids' favorite vegetables.
Even scarier: Research has found that up to a third of young children eat virtually no vegetables at all. Desperate to get healthier food on your child's plate? Listen to the experts when they say vegetables really matter. Here's why, and how to get your kids to enjoy them.
Why Vegetables Matter
1. They help kids grow. Vegetables are packed with essential vitamins and minerals—such as vitamins A, C, E, and potassium—that build tissue and promote cell growth.
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2. They fight disease. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can protect against type 2 diabetes, which is increasingly common in children. By learning to love veggies now, kids will build a lifelong habit that can help lower their risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, and some cancers later in life.
3. They help hydrate. Kids don't have to get all their water from a cup—many vegetables, including lettuce and carrots, contain plenty of it. In fact, broccoli is more than 90 percent water.
4. They help prevent obesity. "There's no doubt about it: Kids who eat more fruits and vegetables have lower body weights," says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). That's because a diet rich in produce is naturally lower in calories and fat and higher in nutrients—and veggies fill you up and leave less room for junk.
5. They're packed with fiber. Fiber makes kids feel full and prevents constipation. Eating a high-fiber diet also means your child is less likely to develop heart disease and high cholesterol later in life. And most kids get only about half as much fiber as they need. Baked potatoes (with the skin) and brussels sprouts are two of the best veggie sources.
A Rainbow of Benefits
Vegetables contain special disease-fighting compounds that help fight cell damage in the body, says Parents advisor Connie Diekman, RD. For the biggest protective punch, serve an array of different-colored veggies, because each hue has its own unique phytonutrients.
Veggies: Tomatoes, tomato sauce, radishes, red onion, red potatoes
Powers: Thought to lower the risk of developing some cancers, including stomach and prostate, and protect against heart disease.
Veggies: Purple cabbage, eggplant, purple peppers
Powers: Believed to help fight off certain cancers.
Veggies: Broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, green beans, celery, spinach, cucumbers, leafy greens, peas, green peppers, sugar snap peas, zucchini
Powers: May help protect against eye conditions, such as macular degeneration, which can lead to blindness.
Veggies: Butternut squash, carrots, yellow peppers, pumpkin, summer squash, yellow corn, yellow tomatoes
Powers: May boost immune function and protect against breast cancer.
Veggies: Cauliflower, turnips, jicama, kohlrabi
Powers: May help prevent some types of cancer.
Is Your Child's Diet Really Healthy?
Despite your best intentions, your kids may not be eating as well as you think they are. Here are five top diet misconceptions and how to fix them.
"Giving my child an occasional treat is no big deal."
Reality check: Last week there was the pizza run when you were too tired to cook, the cookies at a playdate, and the sundaes at Grandma's house. "Lots of parents think they're only treating sometimes, but they don't consider how it all adds up," says Bethany Thayer, RD, a spokesperson for the ADA.
Simple solutions: For a week, jot down all the goodies you give your child. Ask your daycare provider, mother-in-law, and anyone else who cares for her to do the same. If the number of cupcakes and French fries pales in comparison with the servings of vegetables and fruits, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains, you're doing great. Otherwise, find places to cut back.
"I know giving kids too many fruity drinks can make them fat, but I only buy brands that are 100 percent juice."
Reality check: Fruit juice is certainly healthier than soda, but it has plenty of sugar and calories, and filling up on it means kids may not be hungry for more nutritious meals. Plus, children who drink unfortified juice instead of milk miss out on calcium and vitamins A and D.
Simple solutions: Limit juice to four to eight ounces per day, and serve it only at meals (although milk is certainly a better choice). Between meals, offer whole fruit (which provides fiber and helps kids learn to like a variety of food textures) and water, says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, a spokesperson for the ADA.
"I make sure my child eats big meals because I don't want him snacking on junk."
Reality check: Making kids clean their plates prevents them from learning to respect their body's hunger cues. "Kids have an innate ability to eat until they're full and then stop," explains Jamieson-Petonic. And don't demonize snacking—because kids' bellies are smaller than adults', they can't eat nearly as much at one sitting and need regular refueling throughout the day.
Simple solutions: Every two to three hours offer a nutritious snack, such as low-fat string cheese and fruit or whole-grain crackers with peanut butter.
"I have to make separate meals for my child because she doesn't like what we eat."
Reality check: You don't have to become a short-order cook, says Jamieson-Petonic. Kids need to try a variety of foods, colors, flavors, and textures. It's tough to stick to one dinner menu, but you can do it: Your child will eat when she's hungry.
Simple solutions: Don't give up on a food too quickly. Kids often have to taste a food 10 times before they like it. If your child has a friend who's an adventurous eater, ask her mom if your daughter can eat at their house sometimes. When kids see someone they respect gobbling up broccoli, for example, they're more likely to try it too.
"I only give my child low-fat cookies and chips, so I don't worry about how many he eats."
Reality check: They may be low-fat, but they've still got calories. Letting your child eat as many as he wants can sabotage his hunger for real meals and encourage poor eating habits that may lead to weight gain down the road.
Simple solutions: Think wholesome rather than low-fat. When possible, make your own: Substitute whole-wheat pastry flour for half of the flour in any baking recipe for a fiber boost. Or, whip up one of Thayer's favorite snacks: mini muffins made from chocolate cake mix and a 15-ounce can of pureed pumpkin. (Just two ingredients—mix and bake!)
- A half cup of red bell pepper has more vitamin C than an orange.
- Your preschooler's daily vitamin A needs can be met with about five steamed baby carrots.
- A half cup of broccoli contains as much fiber as a slice of whole wheat bread.
- Sweet potatoes may taste rich, but they've got the same number of calories—about 120 per medium potato—as white ones.
- Veggies containing vitamin C can increase your child's absorption of iron from nonmeat sources. Combos to try: a peanut butter sandwich and green pepper strips, or a cup of bean soup with a baked potato.
- Frozen veggies can be just as nutritious as fresh ones -- and since they're processed at the peak of freshness, they may have even more vitamins than produce that's been sitting on store shelves.
According to the latest recommendations from the USDA, kids ages 2 to 3 should have a total of one cup of vegetables a day; kids ages 4 to 8 should have 1 1/2 cups; and kids 9 to 12 need 2 to 2 1/2 cups. Here's what that might look like on their plates.
Daily serving: 1 cup
Lunch: 1/2 cup green beans
Dinner: 1/2 cup mashed potatoes
Daily serving: 1 1/2 cups
Lunch: 1/2 cup broccoli florets with low-fat ranch dressing
Snack: 2 Ants on a Log (6-inch celery stalks filled with peanut butter and topped with raisins)
Dinner: 1/2 cup corn
Daily serving: 2 to 2 1/2 cups
Lunch: 6 raw baby carrots
Snack: 1 red pepper cut into strips
Dinner: Baked sweet-potato fries (using 1/2 potato) and 1 cup green salad
Question: If my child eats a lot of fruit, does it matter that she doesn't eat a lot of vegetables?
Yes. It's true that she'll get a lot of the same nutrients in either fruit or vegetables—and many kids prefer the sweet taste of fruit to the savory flavor of vegetables. But it's important to focus on veggies now too, because what she eats as a kid may determine her diet when she gets older. "Eating vegetables is a learned habit, and habits are hard to change, even as an adult," says Dr. Gerbstadt. Plus, some vegetables definitely trump fruit when it comes to certain vitamins. For instance, spinach is particularly rich in folate, and sweet potatoes and carrots boast huge amounts of vitamin A—nearly 10 times as much as cantaloupe.
7 Super-Easy Side Dishes Kids Love
- One-inch cubes of sweet potato tossed with cinnamon and sugar, coated with vegetable cooking spray, and roasted in the oven for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F
- Steamed carrots with carrot juice and orange zest
- Steamed zucchini with grated parmesan and olive oil
- Peas and corn tossed with lightly buttered orzo
- Brussels sprouts quartered, steamed, and tossed with lemon juice and a little butter
- Spinach tossed and wilted in garlic-flavored olive oil
- Steamed broccoli florets tossed with Asian ginger dressing and topped with sesame seeds
When veggies go incognito, your child can get his daily servings without a fight. Here are some sneaky serving solutions that can really add up.
Try: Carrots, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, and onions
Add to: Pasta sauce, homemade salsa, lasagna, rice, and soups
Try: Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes
Add to: Mashed potatoes, pasta sauce, soups, and gravies
Try: Zucchini, carrots, potatoes, and squash
Add to: Muffins, quick breads, casseroles, meatballs, and hamburgers
Try: Store-bought tomato juice or vegetable-blend juice, or make your own with tomatoes, carrots, celery, spinach, and other vegetables
Add to: Smoothies, soups, sauces, meatloaf, and marinades