It’s never too early, or too late, to help your children establish healthy habits that will serve them for the rest of their lives. But with so many messages about nutrition out there, it can be difficult to know where to start. Fortunately, there are some great ways to communicate and share good practices.
The more fruits and veggies you and your child eat, the better. These are foods that are powerhouses of vitamins and nutrients, which kids need for healthy development. And chances are, if you have a lot of these in your diet, you’ll be eating less of the stuff that’s not so good for you.
Also, pay attention to what your kids are drinking. Soda is full of empty calories and devoid of any nutritional benefit for children. The occasional glass of pop won’t hurt a child, but there’s no reason to keep it around the house. Many sports drinks and juices have just as much sugar as soda, so be careful. Water, flavored seltzers, low-fat milk and very lightly sweetened teas are good alternatives.
Of course, most kids don’t have a whole lot of control over what they eat (when was the last time you saw a preschooler buying groceries?), so it’s up to the adults in their lives to make sure there are plenty of good choices available. Snacks are a great way for kids to develop autonomy and responsibility in their diet. If your kitchen is full of high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar snacks like cookies and potato chips, that’s what your children will reach for when they’re hungry. Keeping a stock of nutritious snacks, instead of the unhealthy munchies, will help everyone in your family snack healthy.
Here are some examples of healthy snacks:
- Baby carrots
- Celery sticks
- Fat-free and low-fat yogurts or cheeses
- Dried fruit like raisins and prunes (look for fruit that doesn’t have sugar added)*
- Low-sodium pretzels*
- Multigrain crackers*
- Frozen grapes (frozen fruit is a nice alternative to popsicles and ice cream)*
*(These foods have extremely long shelf lives and are ideal if you go an extended time between trips to the grocery store.)
Brightly colored foods red apples, green broccoli, orange sweet potatoes are foods that tend to be naturally rich in vitamins, and low in sodium and fat. Basically, bright foods are full of the good stuff. As a result, nutrition experts often urge people to “eat the rainbow.” The nutritional values of vitamins, sodium, fat, cholesterol and sugars might be a tough concept for a very young child to grasp it’s hard enough to understand as a grown-up! but drawing attention to bright fruits and veggies can help a child make good choices. Just make sure they understand colored candy doesn’t count!
Another great way to get a child thinking about healthy food is to cook with him or her. Depending on his or her age, you could assign your little sous chef to washing or chopping vegetables or mixing ingredients. If cooking is something you struggle with as a grown-up, find a cooking class you can share with your child. Many grocery stores hold weekend demonstrations. Community centers frequently offer lessons for a small fee. Meal preparation is a great opportunity to teach about food and spend quality time with your child.
If you are concerned about your child’s weight, talk to his or her pediatrician before making drastic changes in diet. Children need the nutrients present in all the food groups to grow and thrive. Unsupervised calorie restriction, or cutting out entire food groups, can inhibit healthy development of the brain, bones, organs and overall health. Likewise, the restriction of all foods that are perceived as unhealthy has been linked to obesity later in life. A pediatrician, registered dietician or nutrition specialist can help you develop a plan that works for your whole family.