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Developing healthy eating habits

Children develop a natural preference for the foods they enjoy the most, so the challenge is to make healthy choices appealing. Of course, no matter how good your intentions, it’s always going to be difficult to convince your four-year-old that an apple is as sweet a treat as a cookie. However, you can ensure that your children’s diet is as nutritious and wholesome as possible, even while allowing for some of their favorite treats.

The childhood impulse to imitate is strong, so it’s important you act as a role model for your children. It’s no good asking your child to eat fruits and vegetables while you gorge on potato chips and soda.

Top tips to promote healthy childhood eating

Have regular family meals. Knowing dinner is served at approximately the same time every night and that the entire family will be sitting down together is comforting and enhances appetite. Breakfast is another great time for a family meal, especially since children who eat breakfast tend to do better in school.

Cook more meals at home. Eating home cooked meals is healthier for the whole family and sets a great example for children about the importance of food. Restaurant meals tend to have more fat, sugar, and salt. Save dining out for special occasions.

Get children involved. Children enjoy helping adults to shop for groceries, selecting what goes in their lunch box, and preparing dinner. It’s also a chance for you to teach them about the nutritional values of different foods, and (for older children) how to read food labels.

Make a variety of healthy snacks available instead of empty calorie snacks. Keep plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grain snacks, and healthy beverages (water, milk, pure fruit juice) around and easily accessible so children become used to reaching for healthy snacks instead of empty calorie snacks like soda, chips, or cookies.

Limit portion sizes. Don’t insist your child cleans the plate, and never use food as a reward or bribe.

How can I get my picky child to enjoy a wider variety of foods?

Picky eaters are going through a normal developmental stage, exerting control over their environment and expressing concern about trusting the unfamiliar. Many picky eaters also prefer a “separate compartmented plate,” where one type of food doesn’t touch another. Just as it takes numerous repetitions for advertising to convince an adult consumer to buy, it takes most children 8-10 presentations of a new food before they will openly accept it.

Rather than simply insist your child eat a new food, try the following:

  • Offer a new food only when your child is hungry and rested.
  • Present only one new food at a time.
  • Make it fun: present the food as a game, a play-filled experience. Or cut the food into unusual shapes.
  • Serve new foods with favorite foods to increase acceptance.
  • Eat the new food yourself; children love to imitate.
  • Have your child help to prepare foods. Often they will be more willing to try something when they helped to make it.
  • Limit beverages. Picky eaters often fill up on liquids instead.
  • Limit snacks to two per day.

Persuading children to eat more fruits and vegetables

Making mealtimes playful can mean healthier eating for your children. Here are some fun, creative ways to add more fruit and vegetables to your child’s diet:

  • Top a bowl of whole grain cereal with a smiley face: banana slices for eyes, raisins for nose, peach or apple slice for mouth.
  • Create a food collage. Use broccoli florets for trees, carrots and celery for flowers, cauliflower for clouds, and a yellow squash for a sun. Then eat your masterpiece!
  • Make frozen fruit kabobs using pineapple chunks, bananas, grapes, and berries.
  • Go food shopping with your children. Let them see all the different fruits and vegetables and have them pick out new ones to try.
  • Try fruit smoothies for a quick healthy breakfast or afternoon snack.
  • Add vegetables and fruits to baked goods – blueberry pancakes, zucchini bread, carrot muffins.
  • Add extra veggies to soups, stews, and sauces, grated or shredded to make them blend in.
  • Keep lots of fresh fruit and veggies washed and available as snacks. Apples, pears, bananas, grapes, figs, carrot and celery sticks are all easy to eat on the run. Add yogurt, nut butter, or tahini for extra protein.

Limit sugar and salt

One of the biggest challenges for parents is to limit the amount of sugar and salt in their children’s diets. The American Heart Association recommends that daily sugar intake for children are limited to 3 teaspoons (12 grams), and sodium should be less than 1,500 milligrams.

Cutting back on candy, cookies, chips and other snacks are only part of the solution. Large amounts of added sugar and sodium can also be hidden in foods such as bread, canned soups and vegetables, frozen dinners, ketchup, and fast food.

You don’t have to ban sweets entirely. Having a no sweets rule is an invitation for cravings and overindulging when given the chance. Give your go-to recipes a makeover. Many recipes taste just as good with less salt and sugar.

Toddlers love routine and familiarity almost as much as they love saying no. Luckily, there’s no need to sacrifice standbys like mac ‘n’ cheese and PB&J in the name of nutrition – you can make your tot’s go-to meals and snacks healthier with some easy (and a bit sneaky) changes. Here are some easy substitutes for a happy and healthy tot meal:

  • Fries – Leave skin on potatoes, baked, not fried or Sweet Potato Fries
  • PB&J – 100 percent whole-grain bread (dark or white with at least 2 grams of fiber) and spread the peanut butter on lightly or substitute almond butter for half of the fat, and try mashing up berries to use as the jelly.
  • Mac & Cheese – Use whole grain macaroni, bypass the box cheese and try making your own sauce with melted cheese and low-fat 2% milk (or Greek yogurt for extra protein and probiotics) and a dash of butter. You can also puree cauliflower, butternut squash, or tofu for extra protein.
  • Hot Dogs – Scout your supermarket for the hot dog brand with the lowest in sodium, saturated fats and all natural, nitrate-free types. You can also try to sub regular hot dogs with turkey or chicken-dogs
  • Pancakes – Use a wheat or buckwheat mix, or if you are making them from scratch, use white-whole wheat flour. Puree fruits like apples or bananas and stir into the batter. Replace milk with Greek yogurt. And add fruit as a yummy topper.
  • Pizza – Swap out the white pizza crust for a whole wheat crust, you can use a whole-grain muffin as the base; stir in pureed carrots and red peppers into the sauce and slip in some cooked, minced cauliflower under the cheese and make sure to add veggies and perhaps some pineapple on top!

Avoid sugary drinks. One 12-oz soda has about 10 teaspoons of sugar in it, more than three times the daily recommended limit for children! Try adding a splash of fruit juice to sparkling water instead.

Cut down on processed foods, such as white bread and cakes, which cause blood sugar to go up and down, and can leave children tired and sapped of energy.

Create your own popsicles and frozen treats. Freeze 100% fruit juice in an ice-cube tray with plastic spoons as Popsicle handles. Or try freezing grapes, berries, banana pieces, or peach slices, then topping with a little chocolate sauce or whipped cream for an amazing treat.