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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MilkHow Much: About 2 cupsQuick 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.
WaterHow Much: About 4 cupsQuick 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.
JuiceHow 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.
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.
"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.
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.