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Fueling a child’s body with the right foods not only supports growth, but can also establish lifelong healthy eating habits. Establishing a healthy eating pattern early on is critical for a lifetime of health.
Start solids with your baby at about age six months, when they begin to show an interest in food. First foods can be just tastes of what the family is eating. Pureed orange and green vegetables are great first foods. By age one, your child should be eating what the family eats, although meat and chunky foods will need to be grinded or cut up. Your child should begin to self feed by nine to twelve months. Place healthy food on their tray and let them pick and choose what to eat and when to stop. We all have a great natural control of our appetite, and encouraging babies to self feed is a great way to help develop this. Try to avoid the "one more bite" approach to feeding. If a baby turns their head away when you offer them food, their regulation system is saying it is full and they are done eating.
Children need to eat more frequently than adults. Especially during growth spurts, your child will need extra fuel. Offer your children nutritious snacks in between meals so they don’t reach for unhealthy ones when they are famished. Cut up vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and lean proteins like chicken, fish, tofu, and legumes all make great snacks.
To prevent excess weight gain, encourage regular physical activity and balance portion sizes with calories burned. You don’t have to count your child’s calories or weigh their food. However, if they have had an inactive day, don’t overload their plate; it’s unnecessary. On the other hand, if they have been particularly active—had soccer practice, rode their bike with a friend, and played tag after school—they may need that extra fuel at dinnertime.
Studies show that families who eat together provide kids with more nutrition overall. Those children who eat with their families consume more fresh fruit and vegetables and less soda. They also eat less fat and more fiber, calcium, iron, folate, and certain vitamins. The research indicates it doesn’t matter how many people there are in your family or how old the children are—eating together is good for everyone. While eating lunch together may be impossible, aim to eat breakfast and dinner as a family often.
Your kids won’t eat vegetables if they don’t see you doing the same. Make sure to model the kind of behavior you want your kids to have. Make eating produce easy: have fresh fruits and veggies on hand and easily accessible so kids will reach for them, and serve a fruit and/or vegetable at every single meal.
Processed foods are often full of sugar, sodium, unhealthy fats, and calories. Avoid making meals for your children using processed food. Instead, opt for fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean cuts of meat, fresh fish, poultry, and fiber-rich foods like beans and leafy greens. At the grocery store, "shop the perimeter” where the fresh foods are. Avoid the inside aisles where many of the processed foods are shelved.
Eat the rainbow! Kids need all of their vitamins and minerals to grow properly. Serve foods high in nutritional quality to make sure they are getting everything they need. Nutritionists recommend that we eat the rainbow— meaning vegetables and fruits of all colors. It is important to eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day.
Start giving kids whole grain varieties of grains early on, so that they learn to enjoy them. While white breads and sugary cereals are largely marketed towards children, they are not nearly as healthy as whole grains. Try whole grain bread and brown rice.
To prevent picky eaters, offer a variety of foods early on and encourage kids to try new foods. Get kids involved in the planning, shopping, and cooking of food—you may find that if they are part of the process, they’ll be more likely to eat a variety of foods.
Encourage balance, variety, and moderation in a child’s eating pattern. All of us are born with natural regulation of what it feels like to be hungry, satisfied, full, and overfull. Encourage your child to eat to satisfaction without overfilling their stomachs.
With special attention on what, when, and how much your child is eating, you can raise a healthy eater who will enjoy a variety of foods in the correct portions for a lifetime.
Encouraging kids to always clean their plate can lead to overeating. Let them decide when they’re full. Once they are old enough (about five years), you should even allow them to serve themselves. And give them seconds if they are still hungry. If you feel like your child is using this freedom to avoid certain things on their plate (namely vegetables), save what’s left for their next snack time.
Too much fruit juice can be detrimental to your child’s eating habits and health. A form of liquid calories, it may contribute to excess calorie intake without satisfying hunger. Alternately, your child may “fill up” on juice and not eat other nutritious foods. Finally, all the sugar in fruit juices can lead to dental concerns.
Until the age of 6 months, children should not have fruit juice unless it is to relieve constipation. According to the Mayo Clinic, for most children, eight ounces of 100-percent fruit juice should be the daily limit.
Many kids eat too many foods that contain high amounts of fat, sugar, and sodium. Chips, cookies, doughnuts, and other processed foods represent “empty” calories with few health benefits. Always offer nutritious foods first and consider “junk” foods only as an occasional special treat.
Don’t end up making a special dinner for everyone in the family. .Everyone in the family should be eating the same meal. The only exception is if someone in the family has a food allergy. To get children to try new foods, ask them to take at least one bite of each food item on their plate.
Written by: Tara Gidus, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N
Medically reviewed on: Jul 22, 2014: Monica Gross, M.D.
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