Let the hunger games begin! There are no boundaries when it comes to getting little ones to eat — funny faces, airplane noises, even dancing isn’t off limits. But as kids get older, the sweet stuff sucks them in, and it gets harder to feed them a healthy meal. So we asked nutritionist Christen Cupples Cooper, RD, for some tips on how parents can encourage kids to chow on nutritious foods. We didn’t realize that mastering mealtime could be a piece of cake, especially when you have these essentials.
1. Pack a nutrient-filled lunch
These foods can be served in any combination, but it’s best to have all groups represented.
*Lean proteins, such as turkey breast, sliced chicken, reduced-fat cheese, and tofu are good options for sandwiches and “roll-ups.” Some kids would rather have a slice of meat, a slice of cheese (and if they will eat it, a slice of lettuce or tomato) rolled up for their protein.
*Go for whole grain bread. If kids start to eat whole grains from an early age, they are less likely to balk at darker breads. Not all “brown breads” are 100 percent whole wheat though, so be sure to read the label.
*Include a serving of dairy, such as string cheese, yogurt, or milk; plus a regular or flavored milk (the protein, calcium, and Vitamin D kids get from milk supersedes any drawbacks posed by flavorings) or 100 percent fruit juice.
*Add a piece of fruit as dessert. If kids get used to eating fruit as their “sweet treat,” they will continue to eat it. I include one sliced orange, a whole apple, a banana, or some berries. Kids can toss the berries into yogurt if they like, or eat them whole. One serving of dried fruit (mango and pineapple are favorites) is also a good dessert.
*Even if you don’t think your child will always eat it, try to include a vegetable serving at lunch. Baby carrots and celery, or broccoli are excellent choices. Many kids love dipping, so include a dip to get your child interested.
2. Check nutrition labels
You should focus on balancing the amounts of sugar, fat, and sodium in your children’s foods over the course of each day rather than focusing on the content of individual foods. But in general, parents should look for whole grains as a first ingredient in cereals and grains. Look for 100 percent juice rather than “juice drinks,” and avoid soft drinks (no nutrition, lots of calories). Buy whole foods rather than processed foods: For example, an apple is always better than an apple roll-up. Whole foods tend to have their nutrients intact and in the proportions that are best for the body.
3. Make sure kids get all their nutrients (even if you have picky eaters)
Try asking your kids to comment on new foods. I have actually passed out scorecards to my little ones for rating different fruits and vegetables. Kids like to know that their opinions count and they sometimes get more interested in trying foods if they have a say in how much they like them. Also, help kids prepare meals, and encourage them to taste as they go along.