Kids and Foods: Tips for Parents

By Barbara Pierce

As a parent, you’re the most important influence on your child. They learn about food and how to eat it from you. How they make food choices and how they eat throughout their life stems from you.

Kids need the right foods, in the right amounts, to help their bodies and their minds grow, to help them learn in school, to sleep well and play well. Healthy eating in childhood means they’ll have less chance of becoming an overweight child, less chance of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and other issues as an adult.

Registered dietitian Crystal Hein, owner and operator of Crystal Clear Nutrition in Herkimer, offers these tips for parents:

Make healthy choices: “The best way that parents can instill good eating habits in their children is to be a role model,” she said. “If you make healthy food choices, your child will have a good example to follow.” 

If your child had to choose a candy bar or an apple, which would they choose? What if you changed the choice to either crackers and cheese or an apple? The point is that you decide which foods to keep regularly on hand. You control the supply line.

Have healthy foods accessible for your child. Make less-healthy foods less accessible, Hein suggested. If you keep food choices healthy, your child is more likely to eat healthy. They’ll eat what’s available. It’s that simple.

Healthy choices to have available include fruits, vegetables, unsalted nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Also, fat-free or low-fat dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese. Include a variety of protein foods like seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, nuts, seeds and soy products.

Your child should eat less of food that contains refined grains and added sugars, such as white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white flour, white rice, sweet desserts, many breakfast cereals and fast food. And food with saturated fats and salt, like chips.

Involve your children in the meal planning, shopping and meal preparation process. Make it fun for them and involve them in making choices. When kids are involved in planning and preparing healthful meals (with age-appropriate tasks), they are more likely to try new foods. Also, they’ll have a better greater understanding of nutritious, healthful foods that will benefit them for a lifetime.

 “Make healthy eating part of the conversation,” said Hein. For example, discuss the choices they see on TV or the internet. Focus on the benefits of making healthy food choices, like growing up to be strong or having energy to play outside.

Use your child’s food choices as teaching moments. Praise your child for making healthy food choices. Don’t make them feel guilty about their choices of food or drinks.

Start exposing them to a variety of foods when they’re young. Children need nutrients from a variety of food groups to support their growing bodies and minds. They are more likely to try new foods and to like more foods, if they’re exposed at an early age.

Rethink the drink: Encourage fat-free or low-fat milk and water first, said Hein. Rather than fruit juice, offer the whole fruit. If you do have juice, make sure it’s 100% juice without added sugars and limit how much they have. Kids don’t need much of it: four to six ounces a day is enough for preschoolers.

So many so-called “kid-friendly” drinks are loaded with extra sugar. Soda and other sweetened drinks only add extra calories and get in the way of good nutrition.

Water and milk are the best drinks for kids.

Share meal times as a family: Eat together, suggested Hein. Have sit-down meals with your family; serve everyone the same meal. Don’t eat in front of the TV or while using your phones; focus on the process of eating.

Also, this will do much to increase family bonding. When a family sits down together, it helps support each other in handling the stresses life and hassles of everyday life. Eating together also promotes better eating habits.

Reward good behavior with things other than food: When we use food to reward kids, we’re teaching them a bad habit; they may start to use food to cope with stress and other negative emotions. Instead of food, offer praise, attention or fun activities, said Hein. Focus on the activity: bake muffins together as a family instead of just eating muffins.

Be a role model and make physical activity part of your day. Do outdoor activities as a family. Start when your kids are toddlers. Get active as a family. Take a walk together after dinner, plan fun activities every week such as a family bike ride.