A Primer On Healthy Eating for Kids- Tips for a Balanced Diet for Children
When my three children were in their first two years of life, feeding them healthy foods was a breeze. I could throw almost anything their way and they’d gobble it up without any protestations. They’d yet to develop any aversions or pre-judgments about food. Then like clock-work, around the three year mark, formerly beloved foods caused fallen countenances. They’d begun to develop texture, taste and even appearance aversions seemingly overnight. The evolution of the picky eater had begun… I didn’t want to go my Grandmother’s route by forcing them to eat all their vegetables. I wanted to give them some control over their diets (within reason, of course) so they’d be more motivated to seek out healthy foods. I took them to my pediatrician for some tips, some of which worked, but continued to have a battle on my hands for some time to come. I bought and checked out books, read them from beginning to end, and made countless ill-received recipes in order to reincorporate healthy foods into their diets. It became immensely frustrating for me until I serendipitously discovered some tricks.
Balanced Diet for Children- Know Your Food Pyramid!
The USDA’s Food Pyramid isn’t your only guide for healthy eating. However, the USDA’s new Choose My Plate is a one of a kind interactive tool that neither Harvard’s Healthy Eating Pyramid nor the University of Michigan’s Healing Foods Pyramid has. MyPyramid for kids also has two customizable pyramids for specific age groups: preschoolers (ages 2 to 5) and kids (ages 6 to 11). You enter the child’s gender, age and activity level and a handy PDF file will help you plan healthy meals, time your child’s snacks in accordance with meals, and basically hold your hand through choosing optimal children’s nutrition. It also has some handy tips and information for dealing with any picker eaters you might have.
This site is also jam packed with coloring pages, worksheets, posters, and even has a fun computer game for kids to play and simultaneously learn about children’s nutrition. Not only is the kids pyramid a must visit for you, but it’s a fun and valuable educational tool for your young readers. It’s worlds apart from the just showing the old Food Pyramid to your kids and boring them to death color by color. Once my kids got their hands on the USDA's Blast Off game, I couldn’t get them to stop playing. They were then regularly looking at the foods we served them and placing them into their proper food groups. They would even make jokes about how their rocket’s going to run out of fuel because they haven’t been very good about their fruits for the day!
Grocery Shopping with Your Children
I know, it can be ugly. It seems there’s no place they’d rather have colossal meltdowns and full blown temper tantrums than in the aisles of your favorite grocery store. Trust me, it still happens to me. However, after the success of the berry picking, I decided I’d use similar methods of “picking” out foods at our local food market. From the USDA’s website, I printed out a cool two-sided poster designed for kids, with one side a graphic for younger kids and the other side for more advanced children. I gave them each a poster and off we went to the store. I challenged each child to pick out two items each from each of the color coded food groups. They had a ball playing my grocery store “game”, we all benefited that day. Again, just like with the blueberries, they couldn’t wait to come home to sample the foods they’d so diligently chosen. Obviously, they grew out of the need for the pyramid, but to this day we still play the food groups game when they’re with me shopping. As an added bonus, it keeps them focused and busy at the store, and cuts down on embarrassing misbehavior.
Another excellent tool is the American Heart Association’s Food Certification Program. It’s creates a personalized shopping list with foods exhibiting the AHA’s heart check-mark to connote heart healthy foods. My kids have also had a lot of fun with this printable list as it’s become like a grocery store scavenger hunt for them.
When they’re a little older and able to read, have them choose healthy recipes they’d like to try from cookbooks or magazines. Allow them to make the list and assist at the store with finding the ingredients.
Nutrition for Children: Get Them Involved!
I’m certain most parents have learned that turning even the most dreaded chore into fun can be a powerful motivational tool. Many parents utilize games like “beat the clock“ and music to get their children to clean up their rooms or play rooms. The results are usually impressive, my kids start running around like little housekeepers getting their toys cleaned up before the music stops.
You can utilize similar methods for motivating your children to eat healthy. When my twins were two and big sister was four we decided to make an afternoon outing berry picking. At that stage my kids newest addition on their “hate” list was what they called any “smushy fruit”. That was pretty much all berries, except strawberries, grapes, pineapple, oranges and kiwi. We found a U-Pick blueberry farm out in the country and made a day of it. Before we started I gave them a debriefing on what a “yummy blueberry” looks like versus a “yucky blueberry”. I even tried this on for size: “Blueberries are very healthy for our bodies, they help carry out poisons” (referring to their antioxidant properties). My children are fascinated with the concept of poison and avoiding it at all costs! They listened intently and when I gave them the green light their containers were half full before I could even find the little guys. They couldn’t wait to eat these berries they’d gathered themselves. And, guess what? They loved them. This was one of a few epiphanies for me.
Nutrition for Children Starts in the Kitchen- With Them!
Get those kids in the kitchen! I know, I know having your children assist with the cooking is a messy affair. But, I say: buck up because the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience of a bigger clean-up. Not only will they learn some basic math, but will also learn about measurements, conversions, utensils, time, and food properties. That in and of itself is motivation enough to round up your assistant chefs. But, studies also show cooking with your kids peaks their interest in healthy foods they’d otherwise find unappealing. A recent American Heart Association study reports involving kids in food planning, shopping and preparation is a powerful tool in getting children to eat healthy and to combat the growing obesity epidemic in our youth.
Tips for Cooking With Kids- Cooking Activities for Kids
- Choose your time wisely: don’t bring in the junior chefs when you’re in a time crunch, it won’t benefit anyone. Kids, like adults have times of day their more patient and open to learning. Avoid times when they’re tired or have just finished their homework, for example.
- Spend a little time preparing for the kitchen time. Decide what you will collectively cook, assign tasks for your children based on abilities, and do any extensive, monotonous prep work beforehand to stave off boredom.
- Start with simple tasks like washing produce or stirring. Ask them to get particular fruits and vegetables out of the fridge, it will help them learn the names as well.
- Start with recipes that have only a few ingredients, five is a good number for the beginner. We started with salads, the kids loved using the salad spinner and assembling all the veggies.
- Stress safety! Knives and toddlers simply don’t go together, nor do any electric products. Always have an adult in the kitchen.
Nutrition for Children: Let Them Dig in the Dirt!
I’ll be brutally honest here, I do NOT have a green thumb. My children all went to a pretty “earthy” preschool where they grew little indoor and outdoor food gardens. I can’t tell you the excitement they felt when their little seeds began to grow. They couldn’t wait to get to school to see the growth each day. It was like Christmas when they began bearing fruit and vegetables. They’d bring home peas, tomatoes, lettuce and green peppers covered with dirt. They’d eagerly wash them in preparation for the night’s salad.
Begrudgingly, I decided starting our own organic vegetable garden was a tool I was willing to undertake as I witnessed the kids eagerness to try ANYTHING they’d had a hand in growing. We already had an unused soil bed in our backyard, but you can use a variety of cheap items. In fact, a small child’s wading pool makes an excellent “bed” for your garden. Of course, you can also have an indoor garden, there are a surprising amount of vegetables that will thrive indoors: green beans, small fingerling carrots, eggplant, endives, herbs, lettuces, radishes, red peppers, and tomatoes to name a few. We always have an indoor garden going as well during the colder months. There are some great books that can get you started, or a little internet research will get you pointed in the right direction. Your local nursery can give you pointers on growing foods from seeds, as well as what will do best in your climate. Not to mention, there are a wide variety of garden “kits” you can purchase that leave you with little excuse for a less than bountiful home garden.
Let them dig in the dirt and have fun! I got all of my kids their own gardening gloves and tools so they felt even more invested in our gardens. They water it, prune it and pick it all themselves. Honestly, they’re better at keeping up with it than we are. To this day, they’re not tired of it. I vary what we grow fairly regularly to add a little spice to their excitement and their healthy foods. Trust me, if I can make a garden grow, so can you. Furthermore, if I can get my kids to eat their veggies, you can too!