While the diet of the American kid has been enriched in recent years, many young people in the U.S. still fall short of meeting federal dietary guidelines. By and large, they’re still consuming too many sugary beverages, still not drinking enough water, and still not eating enough fruits and vegetables.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the diet of children age 2 and above should include a healthy combination of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, protein-packed foods, and good-for-you oils. At the same time, kids should limit consumption of foods with sodium, added sugar, and high levels of saturated and trans fats.
Not adhering to a balanced diet can lead to a higher risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other health problems, the CDC notes. However, your children’s medical menu might be free of those issues if you ensure their plates are full of good stuff at every meal.
Here are seven ingredients in the recipe for enhancing your children’s diet.
1. Be a nutrition role model.
Whether your realize it or not, your kids mimic your dietary routine.
“If you’re constantly on a diet or have bad eating habits, your kids will pick up on that. Remember: Your kids follow what you do, not what you say,” says Karin Adoni Ben-David, a certified nutritionist and health coach.
Therefore, it’s likely your children will pick up healthy eating behavior if you’re behaving well nutritionally.
“Eat meals together, and practice what you preach,” registered dietitian Stephanie Paver says. “As a parent, you have the responsibility of choosing what foods to serve and when. The child is responsible for deciding whether to eat it and how much to consume.”
2. Stay out of a dietary rut.
Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. It can also spice up your diet.
Mixing it up in terms of what your kids eat contributes to a well-rounded diet complete with all of the nutrients they need for body and brain health, says Nicole Beurkens, a licensed psychologist and board-certified nutrition specialist. In other words, your kids should venture beyond the typical mac and cheese at every evening meal.
“Very often, kids get locked into specific routines around what they eat and what they won’t eat,” Beurkens says. “This becomes problematic, because they end up losing out on so many healthy and delicious foods that they could — and should — incorporate into their diets.”
Even kids who eat plenty of healthy foods like fruits and veggies might consume the same foods day in and day out, she says, and reject any items that are “outside their typical comfort zone.”
“We want to encourage the development of a broad palate for foods so they become comfortable with lots of different items,” Beurkens says, “and are able to explore and incorporate new foods into their diets throughout their lives.”
3. Don’t give up too easily.
So, your oldest daughter turned up her nose when you first introduced her to kale. Don’t stop there, Beurkens advises. The “I don’t like this” mantra stems more from fear of something new, she says, and less from how the food looks or tastes.
To overcome this fear, Beurkens suggests gently exposing a child to a new-to-them food while recognizing the child’s initial thoughts and feelings. This doesn’t mean actually chewing and swallowing the food, at least at first. Instead, it involves them looking at and smelling the food, serving it on their plate and others’ plates, and even helping cook the food.
“While forcing kids to eat foods is never a good idea, continued exposure is necessary to help them get more comfortable with a variety of foods,” Beurkens says. “I tell kids and parents that it takes the brain at least 10 exposures to a food before it can decide what it thinks about the food.”
If you think your daughter will never cozy up to kale or your son will always refuse to chomp on carrots, start small, says Dahlia Marin, a registered dietitian nutritionist. Begin with one healthier meal or snack a time.
“Just like we wouldn’t say a kid who struggles to read when they first begin practicing will never become a good reader,” Marin says, “we should think of healthy eating in the same way.”
4. Dump the fruit juice.
Sure, fruit juice sounds healthy. After all, the word “fruit” is right there. However, fruit juice is “basically sugar water with some vitamins,” says Erin Pitkethly, a nutritionist and registered pharmacist.
In the alternative, opt for an orange rather than orange juice or an apple rather than apple juice. In terms of beverages, go with water — perhaps even fruit- or herb-infused water — instead of juice and other sugar-loaded beverages.
5. Slash the sugar.
Despite a growing emphasis on whole foods, sugar remains a staple in the diet of many American youth. And sugar lurks in many foods under many names, such as dextrose, fructose, glucose and sucrose.
“There’s a lot of sugar in foods we think of as healthy, such as yogurt and granola bars,” Pitkethly points out.
To cut back on sugar, buy whole-grain cereals with little or none of the sweet stuff, and stock your kitchen with whole-food snacks like cheese, nuts, fresh fruit and veggies. Skip the fruit roll-ups and other sugar-heavy goodies.
6. Monitor your kids’ lunches.
Nutritionist and certified personal trainer Jamie Hickey acknowledges that most of today’s school lunches follow government nutrition guidelines but says some “undesirable options” linger. To combat any harm from your children’s school lunch, inquire about what items they’re buying, Hickey says. To gain even more control over what your kids eat at school, pack a healthy lunch every day.
7. Be flexible.
Simply put, don’t be a food tyrant, restricting your kids to nothing but “health” foods. Registered dietitian nutritionist Jennifer Glockner, creator of the Smartee Plate series of nutrition e-books for kids, says it’s OK to let your children enjoy birthday cake or holiday meals, as long as it’s done in moderation.
“Healthy eating involves a healthy pattern,” Glockner says, “and it’s not about just one individual meal or even one day.”