Nutritionist Tips: Your Top Asked Questions Answered by A Licensed Dietitian
Two of our expert dietitians, Elle and Dina, answered your most-asked questions about kids and nutrition. We were able to take the most important points from both of their responses and combine their answers. Enjoy!
1. What do I do about my child who is a picky eater? How can I get him/her to try new foods and eat more fruits and vegetables?
First of all, it is very normal for a child to question the food with which they are presented! Put yourself in your child’s shoes. Imagine you were in a foreign country and there were only a few foods you knew or felt comfortable with, and everyone was always trying to get you to try these unfamiliar items. It might not be a pleasant experience, right? Eventually, over time, if you saw the food over and over again, it would stop looking so foreign. So, just because your child doesn’t like a particular food doesn’t mean you should stop preparing it.
It can be challenging, but there are many strategies to encourage healthy habits. First, continually introduce your child to the food item. It usually takes at least 10 (and can be up to 20) introductions of a specific food for a child to feel comfortable and more open to try it. So keep giving your child that food item and try it with them! Children typically mimic both of their parents’ eating behaviors. Second, involve your child in the cooking process if possible. Make dinners a creative process that your child can help assemble and build. They will be more likely to eat their “masterpiece.” Third, try to pinpoint which food textures or consistencies your child does not like. If you find your child doesn’t like crunchy vegetables or even hard fruit, then provide your child with that fruit/vegetable repurposed into a texture they enjoy. You can take cauliflower and turnips and mash them into a creamy mashed potatoes consistency, for example. You can take fruit and blend it in a smoothie with skim milk. Lastly, don’t give up! If you feel it’s becoming a serious problem and your child isn’t get the proper nutrition, you can always reach out to a professional for more tips and tricks! Don’t suffer alone.
It is also important to note that giving your child a choice is very important. If the child seems to not be interested in vegetables, it may be because the child feels forced to eat that food. So if you were to give the child the option between two vegetables, they will feel more control over what they are eating. According to the center for Disease Control and Prevention, nine out of 10 children do not eat the recommended amount of vegetables. There was a study done at Texas A&M University that also shows that children are less likely to eat the vegetables on their plate if there are more delicious items on that same plate. So it is important for parents to put foods that are similar choices together, rather than putting pizza or fries next to a bunch of broccoli on the plate.
2. How can I feed my family with different preferences and weights?
Adjusting food preferences for a diverse family can be hard. However, it is important not to ostracize or single out any one family member. Instead, make it a family effort to eat more nutritious options. Place emphasis on making healthier choices for the whole family’s benefit. Instead of making separate meals, try to make the same meal and adjust the portions accordingly on every child’s plate. Instead of encouraging seconds right away, have your overweight child drink water and start a dinner conversation to make dinner time last longer. It takes around 20 minutes for our brain to even register that we ate, so overeating at dinner can be attributed to the length of our dinner.
Keep in mind that restriction just leads to the child wanting to eat more. They will find food elsewhere (school, friends, grandparents, etc.), so restriction just doesn’t work. Studies have shown that when a parent thinks their child is overweight, that child is more likely to stay overweight or become more overweight than when a parent thinks their child’s weight is not an issue. Why? Because of restriction.
It is also important to remember that you are not a short order cook! Have one meal that you can offer them if they don’t want dinner (for me it’s a peanut butter sandwich). Don’t change that secondary meal option, ever. You may find that your kids start to try the food that you made for the family more when they are only presented with one alternative option. This way, they won’t go hungry if they don’t like dinner, but they don’t get whatever they want.
It is also important that during meals there are options. If you are eating as a family, try to put a wide variety of foods on the table, both healthy and some less healthy choices. This way the child who may need to focus on eating better will be forced to eat with portion control. If the child is able to see their parents and siblings eating the same thing they are more likely to eat what is on the plate. Making separate meals for each child is unhelpful and may lead to more self-consciousness for that child who is given less. A study done in southern England showed that modeling is the most important influence on a child’s eating habits. Thus if the child is able to continually see a parent eating like them, they will follow those habits.
3. How can I control/ monitor what my child eats when I’m not there? How can I get them to make healthy choices?
The bottom line… you can’t! And that’s okay. We don’t have to control everything. Sometimes, kids need to learn for themselves. What you can do is talk to them about making healthy choices and why healthy choices are important. In these conversations, try to keep weight out of it. You love them no matter how they look.
When you are not around, your grocery shopping purchases will determine what your child eats. Continuously stock your pantry and fridge with more nutrient dense food options, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, popcorn, whole grain chips, and dried fruit. Limit the amount of processed and refined sugar choices. Not only will that limitation help your child make healthy choices in the house when you are not home, but when they are away from the house they will most often gravitate towards foods they are familiar eating.
There is a lot of research on restriction and how it can negatively impact a child’s diet in the future. Leanne Birch and Jennifer Orlet Fisher researched restriction in 2000 and found that girls at 7 years old who were given access to snacks only when they were at school would be more likely to take them than 7-year-old girls who were given the same access at school but were not restricted at home. Another study shows that if restricted at age 5, girls are more likely to eat when they are not hungry from ages 7 to 9. This also resulted in girls at 9 being the heaviest. It is important that parents have planned snack time where the child knows that they are going to be able to have a snack at a certain point in the day. It is also important that children are given dessert every so often, so that they are not restricted from eating sweets.
4. How much should my child be eating and how often? What’s the appropriate serving size?
It depends on your child’s age, gender, weight, and activity level. Keep in mind, children’s stomachs are much smaller than adults when portioning out plates.
I always try to incorporate mindful/intuitive eating. Have them focus on how hungry/full they are before/after eating. Try to eat slowly and enjoy the eating process.
It is important that a child’s growing body is able to eat as their body needs food. When a child is at school, they are usually very active, which will also increase their caloric needs. Typically, children should have three meals a day, plus two to three snacks throughout the day. Since they are still growing it is important that they maintain a steady growth by eating significant meals. Grains are typically portioned to 3 to 5 ounces a day, which could be two slices of bread, cereal, or pasta. Vegetables should be 1 to 1.5 cups a day as well as fruits. It is crucial that children consume 2 to 2.5 cups of milk per day, and that they consume 2 to 4 ounces of protein per day.
5. What does an appropriate breakfast look like for a child and how do I get them to eat before school?
Breakfast really is one of the most important meals of the day! Breakfast should be a complete meal. A complete meal includes a complex carbohydrate and a serving of protein. The best way to encourage breakfast in the morning is to have the whole family eat a quick meal together. Children mimic the eating habits of their parents, so if they see their parents are not eating breakfast, chances are they won’t want to either. However, time is crunched in the morning, so don’t make it a gourmet meal. A quick easy breakfast to eat with the whole family can be low fat greek yogurt mixed with berries, and a low sugar granola sprinkled on top!
Another key to getting in a good breakfast is making sure the child is well rested. Make sure your child has time to fully wake up and start their day stress-free before trying to get them to eat. Most everyone wakes up dehydrated, which can actually make your stomach feel upset. Try offering a glass of water when they first wake up. Let that settle for a few minutes before offering food.
A good breakfast for a child includes a lot of things — eggs, French toast, waffles, pancakes, cereal, oatmeal, bagel, fruit, yogurt, smoothies, etc. While it is hard to push your child to have a breakfast, it is very important that they eat something before they go to school. Studies have shown that if you start with something small in the morning, a child will be more likely to eat it. Do not put a huge plate in front of them because that could overwhelm the child. It is also helpful to have the child drink the meal, like a smoothie. Your child may think it is less food if they are looking at it in a cup, but in reality you could add a lot to a smoothie.
6. What are easy and healthy breakfast, school lunch, dinner, and snack ideas for my children?
Easy grab and go options are ideal for kids and parents! Breakfast can be a nutrition bar and a piece of fruit. Look for low added sugar bars such as the Kid’s RX bar and give them a banana. Make lunch fun but also simple! Lunch can be rice cakes with some nut butter, a low fat string cheese, popcorn, and grape tomatoes. Dinners should be engaging for your child. Try to make dinners fun but easy. Make your own pizzas using a whole wheat pita, low fat shredded mozzarella cheese, and veggies on top. Have your child decorate his pizza and encourage him to make a vegetable face on his pizza. Not only will your child want to try the finished product, but they will be eating their vegetables! Snacks are a great opportunity to sneak in another fruit or vegetable. Try making vegetable faces on a rice cake with hummus as the base, or fruit and vegetable smoothies, or even homemade guacamole!
Some other healthy ideas for children could be whole wheat pancakes with fruit on top for breakfast and apples with cinnamon or a smoothie for a snack. For school lunch, it is important to send something filling such as a sandwich with whole-wheat toast, some protein, and some vegetables as well. It is also important that the child is given sides as a snack so that they can have something sweet as well. An example of a sweet snack could be a cheese stick, some sort of 100 calorie pack snack (of their choice), or a fruit.
If you would like me to connect you with one of our expert therapists or dietitians, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!