Eating well gives your child the energy he needs to learn and grow. And it’ll help him stay healthy, maintain a healthy weight, and establish good lifelong eating habits. Here are some ways to make nutritious food the most appealing choice:
Get your grade-schooler involved
A great way to get your child excited about eating a range of healthy foods is to involve him in the family’s meal-planning decisions. Let him help you make out menus and a grocery list. Have him check to see whether you’re out of grapes and suggest favorite suppers and what to pack for his lunchbox.
When you take him food shopping, ask him to check items off the grocery list for you as you shop. Give him a few choices to make along the way: Peaches or mangoes? Peas or carrots? Graham crackers or fig bars?
You can even have your child look for specific ingredients, like sugar, on the nutrition labels of the foods you choose — and those you put back on the shelf.
Make a habit of selecting one new fruit or vegetable to try each week, keeping in mind that your child may not be interested in trying something unfamiliar until it’s been offered numerous times.
To encourage your child to take some responsibility for his own nutrition, you could help him create his own daily food chart, with boxes for each category: fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat/protein.
Have your child color in or check off the appropriate boxes when he finishes a meal or snack. Then look at the chart together at the end of each day to tally how well he did in meeting his nutritional goals.
Encourage involvement in the kitchen
Teach your grade-schooler to follow a simple recipe and measure ingredients. (This is excellent hands-on practice for learning fractions!)
Have your child wash the lettuce and toss the salad, grease the baking pans and fill the muffin tins. Let him have some fun pouring pancakes in the shape of his initials or cutting toast into a heart shape.
Once he’s old enough to handle it, have him grate cheese and even chop fruits and vegetables. (Always supervise your child with knives and electric appliances, of course.)
Go to the source
Take your grade-schooler on an outing to an orchard, berry farm, or dairy so he can see where the food on his plate comes from. The novelty just might inspire him to try something he wouldn’t otherwise be interested in.
There’s nothing like seeing your own food grow to motivate kids to eat their fruits and veggies. Think about planting your own. Even if you don’t have much space, you can grow tomatoes or strawberries in a container on a balcony or patio.
Be picky about juices
Fruit juices count toward your child’s daily fruit intake, but be careful about the kind and amount of juice you offer. Serve your grade-schooler only 100 percent fruit juice or fruit-vegetable juice combinations. (These are full of nutrients and contain less natural sugar than many fruit juices.) Some kids even enjoy vegetable juices straight up!
If your child won’t drink milk, you may want to find juices that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, but don’t offer fruit “drinks” because they may contain as little as 10 percent juice and an array of flavorings and sweeteners.
Keep in mind that even the healthiest fruit juices can easily become too much of a good thing. Juice can contribute to childhood obesity and malnourishment because a child who drinks a great deal of juice gets extra calories and, at the same time, not all the nutrients he needs. Constantly sipping juice can also lead to tooth decay.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting the amount of juice your child drinks: no more than 1/2 cup (4 ounces) for children 1 to 3 years; no more than 3/4 cup for kids 4 to 6; and up to 1 cup for kids 7 and older. Then use fresh fruit to meet the rest of his daily requirement. When he’s thirsty, encourage him to drink water. (You can also water down your child’s juice, half and half, for the flavor of juice with fewer extra calories.)
Shake and bake
Smoothies are an easy way to get fruit and other nutritious foods into your child’s diet. All you need is a blender and a few simple ingredients. You can use your choice of fresh fruit, frozen fruit such as berries or bananas (peel before freezing), or even canned pineapple or peaches (strain the syrup first).
You might want to include tofu or hard-cooked egg whites — they add protein without changing the taste or texture — and a bit of ground flax seed for extra fiber and omega 3s. Blend with fruit juice or add milk, yogurt, or frozen yogurt for a creamier drink and a dose of calcium.
Whole wheat and bran muffins and quick breads are a good source of grains and fiber, and they can also be a vehicle for fruits and vegetables. Make or buy them with bananas, blueberries, carrots, pineapple, or zucchini.
Fortify but don’t fool
You might try incorporating healthy foods into dishes you know your grade-schooler likes, but don’t be sneaky about it. (Even if he falls for it now, he may later feel betrayed when he figures out what’s up.)
Tell him that you’re giving him some special pasta spirals tonight — with spinach mixed in or with broccoli and cheese on top. Better to be up-front and encourage an adventurous approach to eating.
Make it count
Be aware of your grade-schooler’s nutritional needs, but remember that eating right isn’t all about fruits and vegetables. Calcium is especially important during adolescence, when bones are growing rapidly. Three servings of calcium-rich foods per day are needed. Here are some easy ways to serve up good nutrition:
- A peanut butter sandwich (1 1/2 tablespoons on two slices of whole wheat bread) and one cup of low-fat milk will take care of about a third of your child’s recommended daily intake of grain and half of his dairy requirements. It will also provide all of his protein for the day, as well as important nutrients like zinc, vitamin E, magnesium, and essential fatty acids.
- One and a half cups of bran cereal with raisins with one cup of low-fat milk and a 4-ounce glass of orange juice will satisfy about a third of his fruit, half of his dairy, and a third of his grains for the day. It’ll also provide fiber, iron, calcium, and vitamin C.
- Even a slice of cheese pizza equals almost a third of the day’s dairy, providing over half of the day’s protein and healthy doses of vitamin A, zinc, and iron.
Find fast-food alternatives
Most fast food is full of fat, sugar, salt, and excess calories. An occasional fast-food burger and fries won’t cause any harm, but if you have an alternative, take it. Teach your child to select from the healthy options on the menu — yes to the grilled chicken sandwich, no to the fried onion rings, and forget about super-sizing the meal!
Or pick and choose: Have the burger, but choose fruit or low-fat granola instead of fries. Do your best to limit these kinds of meals to no more than once a week.
Be a good role model
As you consider all the ways of getting your grade-schooler to eat well, remember to practice what you preach. If your child sees you eating lots of junk food or skipping meals, you can’t expect him to eat properly. Make an effort to eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and you and your child will both be better off.
Forget the food fights. Let your child decide how much he wants to eat. And don’t use a sweet treat as a bribe or withhold it as a punishment.
Try to make mealtime together — at the table, not in front of the television — as enjoyable as possible, so that your child can establish a good, healthy relationship with food.