My 9 tried-and-true tricks of the trade
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With five kids under age 10, our dinners are often plagued by stubborn vegetable refusal, dessert gluttony, and serving size greed. Sound familiar? This is normal kid behavior.
Each of my children has presented a unique challenge to my best pediatric dietary practices, but they do eat well — there are no chicken nuggets or skipped vegetables in our house. When we teach our kids to eat right, we give them much more than health — we teach them temperance and self-control.
Here are my tried-and-true tricks of the trade to get your kids to eat well:
Young Kids Will Regulate their Own Calories
Most toddlers have a built-in dietary trick: they actually auto-regulate their own calories. Toddlers will eat the same amount of calories each day whether those calories come from vegetables or cookies. So, if a toddler eats one 100 calorie cookie after lunch, they will eat about 100 calories less for dinner. Toddlers quickly learn to hold-out for their favorite foods, be it dessert, chicken nuggets, or macaroni and cheese, and they happily skip the vegetables. This is why toddlers are notoriously picky eaters. It’s also why obesity is less common in this age group.
Armed with this knowledge, I offered my picky three-year-old only oatmeal with fruit for breakfast and a healthy lunch and dinner that included vegetables. He started eating two or even three helpings of oatmeal for breakfast and simply skipping lunch. He’d skip dinner too if he talked someone into giving him a mid-afternoon snack, or if he got a free cookie from the grocery store or his sister’s soccer game. Now he’s only permitted one serving of breakfast and we try to leave him home from events that include free treats. Occasionally we give in. Once we took him to a business picnic and he had his fill of junk food. He did start eating vegetables again about twenty-four hours later…
Exposure, Exposure, Exposure
Kids will eat almost anything if they are repeatedly exposed to it in a positive context. Let kids look at salad and green stuff on their plate every day. Talk about how good you think it tastes. Never force them to eat it. Usually, I eat my salad and then eat half of what I put on my kids plates. Eventually they will eat it, especially if they are not filling up on other calories.
Kids Eat What You Eat
Healthy kids’ diets start with healthy parents’ diets. Parenting challenges us to become better people, even when it comes to our food. You already know that you can’t eat treats in front of your kids without them asking for some. Your long term dietary habits will become those of your children. What are your dietary guilty pleasures? Do you want your kids to share them? If not, this may be your motivation to change.
Moms actually have higher body mass indexes and are more likely to drink sweetened drinks compared to women without children. Why? Because parenting is hard and moms need our pick-me-ups. If you just can’t give up a personal treat, save it for when you are alone. I have my stash of dark chocolate hidden on a top shelf in the kitchen.
Don’t Let Your Kids Drink Their Calories
Sugary drinks are the fastest way to consume calories. In just a few seconds, a child can consume about half their calories for the day. Most parents are good about limiting soda, but sports drinks, lemonade, iced tea and juice can be just as bad.
The recommended serving size of juice in a toddler diet is four ounces per day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That is less that almost all juice boxes. “Mots for Tots” is a juice box brand targeted towards toddlers that provides watered down apple juice such that one-serving per day is still within the recommended range. But even when I bought these I found my kids just begged for more. I recommend just cutting juice out of your regular diet. In our house, juice is a special treat reserved for birthday parties and other special events. What about vitamins? Whole fruits and vegetables are the best source of vitamins.
Learn Quick, Easy Cooking to Accommodate Your Busy Schedule
Kids’ activities and busy evenings make healthy dinners seem impossible — it’s so easy to just pick up fast food and have a picnic dinner at the soccer field. But fast-food bad-habits are easy to start and hard to break.
My best tricks for busy evenings are: 1) freezer cooking; 2) crock-pot cooking; and 3) paper plates. You need to pre-cook something that you can pull out of the freezer and heat up quickly, or start something in the crock-pot earlier in the day that is ready-to-go at dinner time. Don’t be afraid to use disposable plates and cups at home. One of the appeals of fast food is easy clean-up/no dishes. It’s better to eat healthy food on paper plates than to buy fast food.
We bought an extra freezer for the basement. Now I double the recipe whenever I cook and put the extra meal in the freezer.
Don’t Skip Breakfast
People who skip breakfast are more likely to be overweight than those who eat breakfast. Kids who skip breakfast do not perform as well in school compared to their breakfast-eating peers. Breakfast needs to be quick, easy, and healthy. Try unsweetened cereal with honey on top instead of pre-sweetened cereal. Use skim milk. If your kids (or you) don’t like the taste of skim milk, cut down slowly from full-fat milk to 2%, 1% and then skim. Try regular oatmeal sweetened with fruit, apple sauce, maple syrup, or honey. Make a large batch of whole-wheat or bran muffins and freeze them. Take out enough for your family the night before so they are ready to go before school.
Keep School Lunch Healthy
The good news is that school lunches are getting healthier these days. The bad news is that kids still have too many options for junk food at school. If your child is only
offered the standard school lunch, they are probably getting a decent meal. But the problem is the food choices offered. What kid eats their green beans and skips the dessert?
Our public school offers sugar-laden snacks in the mid-morning, flavored milk at lunch (chocolate, strawberry or vanilla), and a lunch dessert. One trip to the school cafeteria says it all: the milk cooler is 90% full of flavored milk and 10% white milk, only half of which is 2% milk. The dessert section has about fifty servings of jello or pudding and a few servings of canned fruit.
My biggest issue with school nutrition is the classroom snacks. Mid-morning snacks have been shown in pediatric research to improve memory and cognitive performance in elementary students. Usually these snacks are provided by parents. But concerns over allergens and food-borne illnesses have lead many schools to require snacks to be store-bought and pre-packaged. This leads to a predominance of high sugar snacks with limited nutritional value. If kids eat a sugar-laden granola bar at 10 am, they probably will skip the healthy parts of lunch at 11:30.
For healthy school lunch ideas, please see my related post, “School Lunch: Packed or Purchased.”
Offer Fruits and Veggies at Every Meal and for Snacks
This is really hard. Remember, the key to success with healthy foods is exposure and limiting sugar.
– Try clementines and small apples.
– Buy pre-washed salad and steam-in-bag microwave vegetables.
Remember the Lessons of Cookie Monster
Cookie Monster taught us: gluttony is easy, self-control is hard. When we teach our kids to eat well, we give them so much more than health. We teach them self-control. I teach my children the words “gluttony” and “self-control” so that I have something to say besides “no” when they ask for junk food.
My three-year-old saw a man buy ice cream at a concession stand after a sporting event. “That’s gluttony!” she shouted, pointing to the man’s ice cream. Maybe it’s time to work on manners.
Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a mother of five young children. She is a regular contributor to Aleteia, ChildrensMD, CatholicPediatrics and CatholicMom, as well as multiple TV and radio outlets. Connect with Dr. Berchelmann at KathleenBerchelmannMD.com.