With everything going on in the world right now, you’d be forgiven for not realizing that August is “Kids Eat Right Month,” the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ annual campaign to focus attention on the importance of healthy nutrition and active lifestyles for children and families. If you have children, you know that getting them to eat healthy meals can be challenging. At some point, they decide that fruits and vegetables aren’t as fun as treats and sweets. But, there’s always time to turn that idea around and get them on a healthier track toward more nutritious options. And, what’s even better, it can even be fun.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says there are some key steps you can take to promote healthy eating for your children. “One of the biggest tips is to start by focusing on eating meals together as a family,” she said. “This is helpful because you, as the parent, get to take full control over what’s on the menu. The idea is to reduce their intake of soda and fried foods and boost their intake of fruits and vegetables, but having this kind of control over family meals also allows you to have better portion control, which can help your kids maintain a healthy weight. Studies show kids who regularly eat meals as families have a lower rate of depression and eating disorders, as well as a reduced risk for smoking, drinking and drug use in their teenage years,” she explained. “Next, you have to set an example for them. Parents should be role models for their kids’ eating habits by practicing what they preach. Eat balanced meals and snacks yourself, and purposely plan what foods will be available in the fridge or pantry. Remember, parents are responsible for the what, when and where of meals, while children are responsible for how much they eat and whether they choose to do so,” she added.
Tillman says parents also are responsible for the quality and variety of food their children eat. “Healthy foods should be offered frequently throughout each day,” she said. “This includes vegetables; fruit; milk or yogurt; protein sources like eggs, beef, chicken, fish and poultry; and healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocado and olives. Parents should make things like fruit juice and refined grains less available. Finally, so-called ‘fun foods’ like sweets, chips, fried foods and highly processed foods should be the least-frequent options for kids, ideally making up only about 10 percent of their complete diet,” she explained. “This makes up the 90/10 rule of 90 percent nourishing foods and 10 percent ‘fun foods,’” she added.
Parents also need to be judicious when it comes to structuring their child’s meals. “It’s best to schedule all meals and snacks in three- or four-hour intervals,” Tillman said. “Remember to have a specific location for eating, preferably the kitchen or dining room table. Planning for three meals and possibly one-to-two snacks a day is a good idea. These types of boundaries and structures around mealtime will help keep things under control,” she explained. “It’s also important to avoid negative feeding practices such as pressuring your child to eat certain foods, rewarding them for eating the right foods, or bribing them to eat healthily. The objective is to be neither too permissive nor too strict,” she added.
Ultimately, Tillman says, parents should avoid being overbearing. “Relax a little,” she said. “Make healthy eating and physical activity fun for the whole family, and don’t focus on your own weight or your child’s,” she added. For more resources and information on these topics, Tillman recommends the books “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense” by Ellyn Satter and “Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School” by Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen.