As a parent, you want your children to have the healthiest food possible, but good nutrition for kids goes beyond what's being served at the kitchen table today. Even though your kids might need your help now, they'll be making their own decisions about food before you know it.
Jennifer Williams, MPH, pediatric nutrition research scientist with Abbott, shares how you can give them some direction for solid nutrition education.
Keep It Age Appropriate
Younger children tend to do best with simple explanations that are easy to remember. Instead of trying to explain the science, tell them that "milk helps your bones grow" or "pasta gives you the energy to run faster" and helpful reminders like "eat the colors of the rainbow" to get the vitamins you need to stay healthy. Use a helpful tool like the graphic below to help your little one understand the food groups.
Older children can handle more detailed information, and to keep it engaging, you might focus on everyday examples that are relatable to them. Next time your child asks why you're having chicken for dinner again, you can explain that chicken is packed with protein to provide the building blocks for muscle — which could help with performance on the soccer field. When your child is fighting a cold, offer a bowl of fresh fruit and let them know that fruits and vegetables contain key antioxidants that can help their immune system.
When you're trying to steer your child toward better food choices, it can be tempting to focus only on breakfast, lunch and dinner meals, but snacks can have a big impact, too. In fact, according to recent National Health And Nutrition Examination survey data, for U.S. children, ages 2-5 years, snacks can make up about 30 percent of daily calories, and many of those snacks are often from low-nutrient snacks, desserts and candy.
Help your kids make better choices throughout the day by packing their bags with snacks that provide vitamins and minerals, protein and healthy fiber. Fresh fruit and yogurt, celery with peanut butter or trail mix are all great examples of healthy snacks that kids will love. And, don't be afraid to offer the occasional treat — a good balance can help teach kids to make healthy choices down the road.
Help Kids Cook
Kids are more likely to be interested in healthy foods if you make nutrition fun. Many kids love helping their parent's shop at the grocery store — turn it into a teachable moment and help them understand how to choose different types of food. Meal prep is also an easy way to engage kids of any age. Ask your little one to stir a bowl of pancake batter or to tear lettuce leaves for salad. Older kids can take on more complicated tasks like peeling and dicing veggies and measuring ingredients.
Involving kids in food shopping and preparation not only teaches them valuable life skills, it also helps them learn about what goes into their favorite foods. For recipe inspiration, check out these kid-friendly favorites.
Teach Healthy Habits
Good nutrition means getting all the vitamins and minerals you need, but it also means enjoying lots of different foods. Make time for relaxed family meals that give your children the opportunity to really appreciate the food you prepare. Not only do they give you time to bond, regular meals help to establish a healthy eating schedule with a few snacks in between meals rather than grazing or eating small amounts throughout the day.
Eating together and talking about the way food tastes and what goes into it can also help kids develop a healthy relationship with food and eating. Because it takes time for fullness signals to travel from the stomach to the brain, slower, more mindful meals teach kids to tap into their sense of satiety to prevent overeating.
When it comes to nutrition for kids' growth, the most persuasive message of all may be nonverbal. Parents are a powerful influence in shaping children's food preferences and habits. If you prepare, eat and enjoy lots of nutritious foods, the chances are good that your child will eventually follow your healthy example.