A balanced diet is important for everyone when it comes to your personal health, but it can be doubly important in children. What your child is eating now is laying the foundation for later in life, and your behavior and attitude about food is making an impression on them every time you sit down at the dinner table.
Beyond offering up balanced meals and healthy options at mealtime, sometimes it can be difficult to get your child to actually eat them. Sure, you may be serving them up, but if they’re discarding or eating just a bite or two of their vegetables every meal in favor of their chicken strips or tuna bites, their diet is still lacking.
If your kids are anything like mine, threatening them with the old “you can’t do that until you eat your vegetables” is only going to make them more stubborn about not eating their vegetables. Below I share what I’ve found works best in making sure that my kids are getting nutrition from all areas of the food pyramid and in the right amounts.
All photos by Aimee
6 Ways to a Balanced Diet with Your Child
1. Figure out what time your child eats the most.
One thing my pediatrician always stresses is not to worry if one of our kids just doesn’t seem hungry for one meal. It’s normal for appetite to fluctuate as little bodies grow and change within a matter of a week or even on a day-to-day basis.
I’ve noticed that each of my children have different appetite patterns. My eldest is not a breakfast person, while my oldest son is hungriest in the morning, eating everything in sight and still asking for a snack 20 minutes later. At dinner, however, he is usually indifferent, even if we’re having one of his favorite meals.
Knowing that he’ll likely be willing to eat just about anything for breakfast, I am sure to pack lots of nutrition in early. I offer several fruits and whole grains such as baked oatmeal for breakfast, and for a snack I’ll offer vegetable or other healthy options.
I try to make sure his diet is balanced throughout the day so that one bad meal isn’t going to mean he ate nothing but carbohydrates all day.
2. Make food fun.
For a three-year-old, a plate full of vegetables may not seem very exciting. Changing that perception can go a long way in getting your children to eat healthy and balanced meals.
As broccoli florets turn into tiny trees and mushrooms become homes for the grains of rice, creativity at the table can be a good thing. Aimée makes a recipe for cheese fondue to eat with the whole family. This can also be a perfect way to get your kids thinking about vegetables in a fun and exciting way. A plate full of vegetables that is going to go swimming in cheese sauce can be very fun.
Smoothies are another fun way to incorporate a few vegetables into their day. Let the children pick and choose their produce to create a ‘custom’ smoothie.
3. Serve one thing they like.
I don’t cater to my children’s likes or dislikes when serving meals, but I do try to make sure that each meal contains something that they will eat so they aren’t starving the next morning.
For example, my 9-year-old recently decided that she no longer likes asparagus after 9 years of eating it happily. Knowing that she hates it so, I try to pair it with things I know she likes, like salmon. I know she’ll eat the salmon, even if she doesn’t eat more than the required amount of asparagus and won’t leave the dinner table ravenously hungry.
4. Introduce new foods with flavors that your kids are familiar with.
Introducing a new food and a new flavor combination at the same time can be hard for little mouths to accept. Consider a happy medium.
Let’s say you’re trying to get your children to incorporate some Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of salmon. While your child may not appreciate a Salmon Croquettes on Day 1, try serving your fruit-loving child a grilled salmon with a pineapple-mango salsa later in the week.
Incorporating the flavors s/he is familiar with and enjoys may be the difference between food introduction failure and success, and first impressions are very important when it comes to introducing new foods.
5. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Just because your child vehemently declared his/her hatred for sugar snap peas, don’t let that discourage you from reintroducing them again at a later date. I can’t even count the number of times one of my children has declared such-and-such food item inedible only to finish the entire serving the second or third time it is presented to them.
I’ve noticed so far that all of my children have gone through a “picky” stage. Instead of letting it get me down, I look at it as a stage that needs conquering. We try different variations of the same food and try to pinpoint what it is they’ve decided they don’t like about it. It could be as easy as serving it with a different sauce or different seasonings and they’re right back into loving it.
6. Get your child involved in the decision-making and preparation.
Being able to make their own choices about what’s for dinner can be a huge emotional boost for a child. Additionally, seeing them beam with pride because they were responsible for the food being served and getting complimented on how delicious it is can reinforce healthy eating habits.
Let your child shop for and plan one of the family’s dinners next week. This is a great opportunity to teach them about food groups and encourage them to pick side dishes and an entrée that fit into them and then have them help during the preparation. Getting them involved gives them a sense of independence and ownership over the meal.
Be sure you’re serving and preparing whole foods. Start with foods that you can easily identify as plant or animal before you start cooking with them and you’ll already be on the road to a healthier, more balanced meal every time you sit down to eat.
Excerpts from this post were originally published in March, 2010.
Do you do any of these things with your children? What other ideas have you found that work for your children in getting them to eat a balanced diet?