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Children's Nutrition

Nutrition

Help Your Kids Embrace Healthy Eating

Like oil and vinegar, fire and water, and UCLA fans and USC fans, it seems that children and healthy foods just don’t mix. Picky eaters who hate vegetables have been the subject of advertising campaigns since the industry was in its infancy. Put a group of moms together, and the conversation will eventually gravitate toward their children’s eating habits.

The reality is that children—and adults—can learn to love fresh fruits and vegetables, even if it seems they are hopelessly addicted to processed, unhealthy foods. March is National Nutrition Month, a great time to evaluate your family’s dinner plate and introduce healthy and delicious alternatives.

“Kids are naturally curious, and they have a tendency to mimic the attitudes and behaviors of their parents,” said Simi Valley pediatrician Lauren Tashman, MD. “These are two characteristics that parents can use to introduce their kids to healthy eating.”

Young children learn by doing and touching, so getting them physically involved in exploring fruits and vegetables can make their transition to healthy eating easier.

“Engaging children in helping to make their own healthy snacks and meals while they are still toddlers helps them to be more likely to accept healthy eating as a normal part of their life as they grow up,” Dr. Tashman advised.

Talking to children about fruits and vegetables—the colors, the various parts of the vegetable or fruit, how they taste compared with other fruits and vegetables— and tasting them together can help make the process of learning to eat a wider variety of produce more fun, she said.

While making and eating new things can be an enjoyable experience, Dr. Tashman urged parents to make sure their food prep activities are age-appropriate.

“You shouldn’t be giving your toddler a sharp knife, of course,” she said, “but he or she can watch you peel and portion the fruits and vegetables as you talk about them. An older child can begin using a knife under your supervision.”

Be careful of the types of food you’re offering to younger children, too, Dr. Tashman advised. Carrots, whole cherry or grape tomatoes, celery, peanut butter, nuts and popcorn can all be choking hazards for toddlers.

Healthychildren.org, a website from the American Academy of Pediatrics, lists a number of healthy snacks for kids, such as:

  • Small cubes of cheese and diced apples

  • Canned pineapple chunks in their own juice

  • Whole-grain, low-sugar dry cereal

  • Whole-grain crackers with cottage cheese

  • Plain low-fat yogurt with sliced strawberries

  • Sliced banana

  • Cut-up avocado

  • Low-fat pudding

  • Pita bread

  • Bean or eggplant dip

  • Hummus

  • Salsa

  • Low-fat granola bars

  • Dried fruit

  • Prepackaged, precut vegetables with low-fat dips.

Even a healthy diet filled with lots of fruits and vegetables, however, can be scuttled by one simple mistake: Forgetting to consider what your child is drinking.

According to healthychildren.org, preschoolers need about three ½-cup servings of fat-free or 1% percent milk every day. Beyond those milk servings, water should be the only other drink a child consumes.

“Lots of parents give their children fruit juice, thinking that it is a healthy choice,” Dr. Tashman said. “Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Most juices are high in sugar and calories. It’s always better to eat fruit rather than drink it.”

Dr. Tashman said that parents who still want their children to have juice can give them one small glass of 100-percent fruit juice per day. It’s important to read the drink label carefully, however.

“Fruit-flavored drinks, which contain little or no juice, are the very worst,” Dr. Tashman said. “They’re loaded with sugar and chemicals, and they provide basically no nutritional value.”

Just like adults, children—including older children and adolescents—can benefit from following the guidelines of the United States Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate model (formerly known as the food pyramid). According to the model, half of every meal plate should be made up of fruits and vegetables, with the other half consisting of grains, along with a small serving of protein, such as lean meat or fish. Learn more at choosemyplate.gov.

Once puberty begins, boys and girls will have somewhat different nutritional needs. If you have questions about your child’s nutrition during any stage of his or her life, talk with your pediatrician or primary care physician.