In this article:
- Developing healthy eating habits
- Limit sugar and salt
- Children, weight and self-esteem
- Kids and junk food
Good nutrition is the bedrock of lifelong health, and it begins in infancy. Healthy eating can stabilize children’s energy, sharpen their minds, and even out their moods. Unfortunately, kids are bombarded by messages that can counteract your efforts. Between peer pressure and the constant television commercials for junk foods, getting children to eat well might seem more futile than fruitful.
However, there are simple steps that parents can take to instill healthy eating habits in their kids, without turning mealtimes into a battle zone. By encouraging healthy eating habits now, you can make a huge impact on your children’s lifelong relationship with food and give them the best opportunity to grow into healthy, confident adults.
Eating the recommended daily allowance of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and being physically active are simple ways to help your kids:
• Concentrate and do better in school
• Grow and develop a strong body
• Feel good about themselves
• Grow and develop strong bones
• Lower their future risk of diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers
Developing healthy eating habits
Children develop a natural preference for the foods they enjoy the most, so the challenge is to make healthy choices appealing. Of course, no matter how good your intentions, it’s always going to be difficult to convince your eight-year-old that an apple is as sweet a treat as a cookie. However, you can ensure that your children’s diet is as nutritious and wholesome as possible, even while allowing for some of their favorite treats.
The childhood impulse to imitate is strong, so it’s important you act as a role model for your kids. It’s no good asking your child to eat fruit and vegetables while you gorge on potato chips and soda.
Top tips to promote healthy childhood eating
• Have regular family meals. Knowing dinner is served at approximately the same time every night and that the entire family will be sitting down together is comforting and enhances appetite. Breakfast is another great time for a family meal, especially since kids who eat breakfast tend to do better in school.
• Cook more meals at home. Eating home cooked meals is healthier for the whole family and sets a great example for kids about the importance of food. Restaurant meals tend to have more fat, sugar, and salt. Save dining out for special occasions.
• Get kids involved. Children enjoy helping adults to shop for groceries, selecting what goes in their lunch box, and preparing dinner. It’s also a chance for you to teach them about the nutritional values of different foods, and (for older children) how to read food labels.
• Make a variety of healthy snacks available instead of empty calorie snacks. Keep plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grain snacks, and healthy beverages (water, milk, pure fruit juice) around and easily accessible so kids become used to reaching for healthy snacks instead of empty calorie snacks like soda, chips, or cookies.
• Limit portion sizes. Start with small servings. It is better to offer more than push a child to eat too much.
Limit sugar and salt
One of the biggest challenges for parents is to limit the amount of sugar and salt in their children’s diets.
The American Heart Association recommends that sugar intake for children is limited to 3 teaspoons (12 grams) a day. Cutting back on candy and cookies is only part of the solution. Large amounts of added sugar can also be hidden in foods such as bread, canned soups and vegetables, frozen dinners, ketchup, and fast food.
• Don’t ban sweets entirely. Having a no sweets rule is an invitation for cravings and overindulging when given the chance.
• Give recipes a makeover. Many recipes taste just as good with less sugar, fat and whole grains.
• Avoid sugary drinks. One 12-oz soda has about 10 teaspoons of sugar in it, more than three times the daily recommended limit for children! Try adding a splash of fruit juice to sparkling water instead.
• Cut down on processed foods, such as white bread and cakes, which cause blood sugar to go up and down, and can leave kids tired and sapped of energy.
• Create your own popsicles and frozen treats. Freeze 100% fruit juice in an ice-cube tray with plastic spoons as popsicle handles. Or try freezing grapes, berries, banana pieces, or peach slices, then topping with a little chocolate sauce or whipped cream for an amazing treat.
One teaspoon of salt contains about 2,300 mg of sodium. Some guidelines for the maximum salt intake for children:
If a child is… They should eat less than…
1 to 3 years old 1,500 milligrams a day
4 to 8 years old 1,900 milligrams a day
9 to 13 years old 2,200 milligrams a day
14 to 18 2,300 milligrams a day
• Avoid processed, packaged, restaurant, and fast food. Processed foods like canned soups or frozen dinners contain hidden sodium that quickly surpasses the recommended limit. Many fast food meals are also loaded with sodium.
• Opt for fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned vegetables.
• Cut back on salty snacks such as potato chips, nuts, and pretzels.
• Choose low-salt or reduced-sodium products.
Healthy fats are also important:
• Monounsaturated fats, from plant oils like canola oil, peanut oil, and olive oil, as well as avocados, nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans), and seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame).
• Polyunsaturated fats, including Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, or in unheated sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils, and walnuts.
Kids, like the rest of us, should limit:
• Trans fats, found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
A “weighty” problem: children, weight and self esteem
Children who are substantially overweight or obese are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and poor self-esteem, as well as long-term health problems in adulthood. While childhood obesity doesn’t always lead to obesity in adulthood, it does raise the risks dramatically. The majority of children who are overweight during preschool or elementary school are still overweight as they enter their teens. Most kids do not outgrow the problem.
Addressing weight problems in children requires a coordinated plan of physical activity and healthy nutrition. Unless directed by your child’s doctor, though, the treatment for childhood obesity is not weight loss. The goal should be to slow or halt weight gain, thereby allowing your child to grow into his or her ideal weight.
Think of exercise as a food group in your kid’s diet
Add physical activity to your child’s day, just as you would add fruit or veggies. To encourage physical activity, play with your kids – throw around a football; go cycling, skating, or swimming; take family walks and hikes; and help your kids find activities they enjoy by showing them different possibilities. The benefits of lifelong exercise are abundant and regular exercise can even help motivate your kids to make healthy food choices.
Kids and junk food
No matter how well parents promote healthy eating, it can be difficult for any kid to avoid the temptation of junk food.
Instead of eliminating junk food entirely, which tends to increase cravings even more, try substituting some healthier alternatives.
Kid-friendly junk food alternatives
• French fries
• Ice cream
• Fried chicken
• Doughnuts or pastries
• Chocolate-chip cookies
• Potato chips
• “Baked fries” grilled in the oven and salted lightly
• Low-fat frozen yogurt; sorbet; fresh fruit smoothies
• Baked or grilled chicken
• Whole grain bagels and English muffins; home baked goods with less sugar/fat and whole grains
• Graham crackers, fig bars, fruit and caramel dip
• Pretzels, unbuttered popcorn, baked potato chips, soy crisps
Eating out with kids: fast food and restaurant nutrition for children
It might be challenging to persuade your youngster to order a salad instead of a cheeseburger, but you can steer them towards healthier options. Some important tips to remember about fast food and restaurant dining for kids:
• Avoid sodas – Kids should drink water or milk instead.
• Avoid chicken nuggets – Unhealthy imposters of real chicken.
• Skip the fries – Consider taking along a bag of mini carrots, grapes, or other fruits and vegetables to have instead. This will add vitamins and fiber to the meal.
• Order the kid’s meal with some substitutions – Children often love the kid’s meal more for the fun box and toys than for the food. Ask to substitute healthier choices for the soda and the fries if possible.
• Opt for chicken and vegetables or spaghetti with tomato sauce in a sit-down restaurant, rather than a big plate of macaroni and cheese.
Source: HELPGUIDE.ORG in collaboration with Harvard Health Publications
Authors: Maya W. Paul and Lawrence Robinson