I know this goes without saying, but nutrition for kids starts with you, the parent. Leading by example with your eating habits and food choices, cooking and shopping, and overall healthy living is the best route to setting your kids up for a healthy life. But like many things, that’s easier said than done. Below you’ll find strategies to improve your family’s nutrition skills. My recommendation is to pick a few and focus on implementing them slowly to improve adherence for everyone.
Eating disorders and body acceptance issues are a growing issue in our culture. It’s important to educate your kids, not dictate their every meal and calorie or nitpick every dietary action. The end goal should be to set your kids up for success and long-term health when they’re out of your house. It’s okay to be concerned about their current health state, but you have to be careful when making changes to an overweight child’s diet.
For starters, no child should be on a diet. Growth requires calories and adequate food intake, and it’s not something that should be tampered with. That said, there’s a clear difference in calories for growth and calories leading to childhood obesity. When your child crosses this threshold, it’s time to begin making some of the changes below.
You Can’t Control Their Actions Outside the Home
There’s going to be peer pressure to eat foods that aren’t healthy, especially once kids can drive and go wherever they want. No different than consuming alcohol at parties, kids will sense a natural pressure to eat pizza or burgers instead of healthier options when they’re in social settings with friends. If you’re health conscious, you likely still feel this pressure from friends and family. That stuff is just going to happen, and there’s not much you can do about it. All you can control is what goes on at home.
You could try passively educating them on making better choices at restaurants and when they’re on their own. My eBook, Nutrition Made Easy, has a fast food and restaurant guide for a starting point.
Eliminate Easy Obstacles First
When there’s no junk – and by junk, I don’t mean just the obvious junk like chips/candy, I mean sugary cereal and other highly processed foods – it’s going to make life a lot easier. There might be an adjustment period if there are currently things like that in the house, but they’ll adjust. As a rule of thumb, shoot for minimally processed foods above all else. That doesn’t mean you have to make trips to the farmers market every weekend and raise your own cattle and chickens. Buying frozen is a great option for increasing vegetable/fruit intake while minimizing food waste and providing the same level of nutrition. Did you know frozen may even be a better option?
The easiest nutrition course correct is to eliminate liquid calories. That means fruit juices, soda, and other sweetened beverages. Substituting sugar-free beverages and water will eliminate nutrient-void calories and high-sugar intake, both important factors in health and development for kids. Milk is fine, but you could also try things like coconut, almond, or cashew milk for low-calorie options.
If soda is a staple in the household, switch to diet. Instead of Koolaid, try Crystal Light or other calorie-free options. And don’t worry about artificial sweeteners – the scientific data doesn’t show any reason to avoid them at this point. If you’re a southerner like me, and sweet tea is in your child’s diet, try swapping sugar for a natural sweetener like Stevia.
Take It Slow
When eliminating junk or inferior food choices, don’t do it all at once and always replace bad choices with better choices. One week you may leave out a box of cereal and replace with low-sugar oatmeal or fruit. The next, you might swap fat-free popcorn in the place of chips. Let them see you eating the better choices or offer to show them how to prepare something if more time is required. Older teens may resist these types of interactions, but the things they learn from their parents will stick with them.
Portion Sizes and Stopping When They’re Full
Teach them about proper portion sizes and don’t encourage them to have a happy plate like most of us were taught. I know wasting food is frowned upon, but you want to teach them to eat until they’re full, not until all the food is gone. Portion sizes continue to get bigger so the more we’re finishing an entire meal or clearing our plates, the more calories we’re consuming.
Eat Together and Not in Front of a TV
It may sound old fashioned, but it causes everyone to eat slower by default, resulting in better eating habits. This is also important because you won’t be able to get this time with your kids back. According to stats from Tim Urban at Wait But Why, you spend 80-90% of your lifetime’s time with your kids before they graduate high school. After that, most people have a handful of days with their kids each year. Cherish the time you have with each other.
Find Ways to Introduce Micronutrient-Dense Foods
More fruits and veggies could be a big difference maker for kids both in their development (body/brain/etc.) and in their long-term nutrition habits. You could do more veggie-based soups or puree veggies and put them in other things. Smoothies are an option to introduce better tasting dishes with things like spinach or kale. The earlier you can set the record straight about vegetables being tasty, the better.
Because of childhood obesity’s prevalence, vegetables take a high priority due to their high nutrient content and low-caloric load. That said, getting kids to load up on fruits and veggies is easier said than done. Other non-vegetable options for kids that deliver high-quality nutrition include:
- Nuts, seeds, and beans contain moderate amounts of protein and healthy doses of iron, potassium, and other minerals that most Americans are deficient in. Nuts also contain good fats that lend a hand to physical and neurological development. Walnuts, for instance, contain large amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, which play a role in everything from nervous system and brain function to inflammatory processes. As a warning on nuts, they’re extremely calorie-dense per serving. It would be a good idea to pre-package or buy nuts in their serving size and begin educating kids on how many nuts is appropriate for a serving.
- Dairy products are known for their calcium content but most are also fortified with vitamin D as well since calcium aids in its absorption. In children, two of the most common nutrient deficiencies are iron and vitamin D. We can synthesize vitamin D from sunlight exposure, but sun exposure comes with its own risks and downfalls. It’s also worth mentioning that calcium may inhibit iron absorption, though it could have minimal effects in the presence of other foods and nutrients.
- Eggs are great sources of high-quality protein, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and minerals like choline, potassium, and selenium. The nutrients are spread through the entire egg, but the yolk is particularly nutrient-dense. So, go with whole eggs.
- Whole grains are rich in B vitamins, minerals like zinc and magnesium, and fiber. Oats are easy to implement into tasty dishes with minimal prep time or skill.
An important takeaway here is that all of the foods above are easy to prepare and readily available. If you teach your kids how to cook an egg, microwave oats, cook whole grain rice, and what portion sizes look like for things like walnuts, you’ll be setting them up for short-term and long-term success. They can learn more advanced cooking skills as they go.
Don’t Reward a Job Well Done with Food
When you use things like ice cream, candy, or tasty foods as treats you’re teaching your kid to associate those things with doing a good job. That’s a habit that dies hard, and it’s something they’ll carry into adulthood. Rewards are fine but think about its implications in the future. You could try using activities that your kids enjoy or more elaborate healthy dishes as rewards. My mom makes a healthier chocolate torte out of avocados and a nut-based crust that would’ve been a perfect reward. It’s still food as a reward so be careful, but this will be a learning process. (Mom, if you’re reading this – I’d like a chocolate torte.)
Inclusive vs Exclusive
Don’t restrict foods or make certain foods off limits. Instead, focus on making healthy foods a large part of your family’s diet and include nutrient-rich foods and meals as often as possible.
Be Nutritionally Agnostic
If you want to try keto or a paleo diet, that’s fine. But don’t force that on your children. They need to have options and the choice to make a wide variety of dietary choices. At that age, teaching them to eat within the constraints of one fad diet could lead to unhealthy eating habits and neurosis about food.
School Lunches Might Not Be the Best Option
I know making lunches every day isn’t all that practical, but you could make them in bulk (think: lean deli meat sandwiches on whole grain bread with healthy chip alternatives like nuts or fat-free popcorn) and involve your kids in the process. Keep the foods above in mind when making lunch or snack selections.
Packing a lunch is a great alternative to school lunches, but your child may face social pressure to eat the school lunch like everyone else. In that case, there’s not a lot you can do other than educate on the home front about making better choices.
Increase Physical Activity Outside of Their Sport
Since we’re beginning to remove things like recess and physical education classes, kids are now being forced to sit for nearly eight hours M-F. Not only is that wreaking havoc on their growth and development, it’s causing them to get fat. As a culture, caloric intake is on the rise and physical activity is on the decline. Make it your mission to get your kids up and moving.
If you’re like most people, your workouts take place in a gym. But maybe there’s a possibility for family workouts and activities. This could be something simple like taking a walk or it could be doing something “fun” for everyone like going to the rock climbing center or whatever you guys would be interested in. Finding ways to get them off phones, games, and other distractions is going to be tough but can be done.
Either way, physical activity and regular exercise for kids are extremely important for motor skill and neural development. Take the initiative to get them involved in different sports, programs, and activities. Not only will their health improve, their social skills, resiliency, and grit will be tested.
The biggest takeaway will be to take their nutrition and health into your own hands. Their future depends on it. This process starts in the home. Control as much as you can without dictating and always lead by example. If it’s a group effort, it’ll take root even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. I’ll leave you with a few resources below. Good luck!