by Emily Barrow, CACFP Child Nutrition Professional
As a parent, you have the ability to greatly impact your child’s eating habits by modeling healthy eating and encouraging her to try new foods. Children develop their eating habits and preferences from infancy, and they remain with them through adulthood. Studies have shown that children exposed to a variety of fruits and vegetables between the ages of 6 and 23 months will have a positive association between dietary variety and nutritional status and will be more likely to accept healthier food later in life.
So what does healthy eating with children look like? It starts when you set the meal. Take the time in your busy schedule to sit at the table as a family. Create a relaxing and pleasant environment for the meal time.
Plan a healthy menu ahead of time. Be aware of some pitfalls, like the fact that some foods packaged for children are very high in sugar. For instance, 55% of the 80 calories in “kid-friendly” Go-Gurts, (Yoplait’s kid-friendly yogurt in a tube) are made up in sugar. Yogurt can be a wonderful way to incorporate dairy into a child’s diet, however, make sure to read the labels when shopping. Another item commonly served to children that is high in sugar is juice. 12 ounces of grape juice contains 15 teaspoons of sugar. In comparison, a 12-ounce soda only contains 10 teaspoons. Offer your child fresh fruit over juice – it reduces the amount of sugar she consumes and gives her fiber in her diet.
When the meal begins, allow your child to serve herself and decide for herself when she is full. Offer a variety of foods; keep in mind temperatures, textures, and colors. Discuss new foods together and model a positive attitude about it. Offer new foods more than once to the child, but make sure to offer familiar foods at the same setting.
Children react positively when meal time becomes fun and engaging.
Some tips to make healthy eating fun include:
Create a routine
Children like to know what to expect next. Make sure you are serving your meals at the same time each day.
Try a garden
If a child is part of the growing process, she takes ownership in the finished product and is more willing to try it.
Think about how you prepare it
Some children may not eat a raw apple, but they might eat it if you cut it up and cook it. Discuss with your child the different ways you prepare food. Relate a tomato to all the products it becomes. Let him see what a whole tomato looks like.
Let them cook
Children love to help in the kitchen. Find creative ways the children can be part of the process. They can cut up veggies, stir a pot, wash veggies, or help with the measuring. Give them ownership of the meal , and they will be more likely to eat it.
 Arimond M, Ruel MT. Dietary diversity is associated with child nutritional status: Evidence from 11 demographic and health surveys. The Journal of Nutrition 2004;134:2579-2585.