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Raiding the fridge: Helping kids make healthy food choices

Health and Wellness, Nutrition

“I’m hungry!”

That seems to be the first thing out of many kids’ mouths when they get home from school each day. Yet despite their seemingly endless appetites, a lot of kids turn up their noses at healthy foods while begging for chips, cookies, and soda.

Are there ways to get kids more accepting of healthy, nutritious meals and snacks? Debra Johnson, a nurse practitioner at Adventist Health Primary Care Gresham Station, says yes.

Getting kids involved in nutrition

The first step, Johnson explains, is to talk with your kids about why eating healthfully is important. “I tell a preschool child that they want to be strong and keep up with their peers,” she says. “I tell an adolescent they want their skin to look clear. Talk about what they care about.”

Children are curious and enjoy learning new things. Getting them directly involved with nutrition is a great way to start a lifelong healthy habit.

Johnson’s own kids were part of meal planning from a young age. “My kids were always involved with preparing and shopping for food. Even when they were toddlers, they helped in the kitchen and were taught how to choose fruits and vegetables,” she explains.

Growing an herb or simple container garden with some greens or tomatoes gives kids a chance to be involved in their own ingredients in a fun way. Tending their garden and watching their food grows enhances how kids value their meals later.

Empowering kids with healthy choices

Where possible, it also helps to let kids have some choice in what they eat. But that doesn’t mean you have to make special meals for a picky child. “Parents choose what the meal is,” Johnson says. “The child chooses how much he or she will eat of it.”

That said, involving kids with cooking and eating together as a family is key. “Eating together is a social experience,” Johnson explains. “Enjoying food together helps.”

Some foods are harder for kids to enjoy though. “Kids are sensitive to bitter tastes in broccoli and certain vegetables,” Johnson says. She suggests letting kids add a little cheese dip or ranch dressing to help them accept nutritious foods they otherwise don’t like.

It’s not about weight

Helping kids eat healthfully isn’t necessarily about their weight. “I like to focus on talking about health and not weight,” Johnson says. When kids improve how they eat, their weight will typically work out as they grow taller.

And if kids are hungry after eating their healthy food, they should be allowed to eat more — of the right foods. “It’s OK to have additional fruit or vegetables if they are still hungry,” Johnson suggests.

Most importantly, though, kids — as well as adults — would do well to skip sugary beverages like soda and juice. “It’s OK for treats, but remember treats should not be daily,” Johnson adds.

Every child is different, so don’t hesitate to talk about your child’s specific nutritional needs with their primary care provider. If your family doesn’t have a provider, Adventist Health Portland’s family practice providers are accepting new patients. Just call us at 503-261-6929.