Peer pressure, social media, fast food, TV commercials — these are among the myriad factors that can influence your child’s diet. Toss in the demands of work, school and activities and it’s easy to see how a kid might not develop the best eating habits.
But experts stress that parents do have a weapon to fight all these obstacles: themselves.
“At the end of the day, the parent is responsible for the types of foods brought into the home and what they pack in the lunchbox,” said Lucette Talamas, a dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida. “Parents lead by example.”
Kids, especially young children, are going to imitate their parents. So if you’re nibbling cookies while talking on your cell at the dinner table, guess who’s going to do the same.
“We need to start healthy eating habits at a young age,” said Veronica Figallo, a registered dietitian at Joe DiMaggio’s Children’s Hospital, part of Memorial Healthcare System. “Kids are going to eat what you’re eating. If you’re eating healthy foods, your kids will eat them, too.”
But that doesn’t mean you need to give up if your kid is an adolescent or teenager.
Parents can talk to their teens about nutrition and “how to make choices when parents aren’t around,” said Amanda Amigo, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston. “You want to engage them to be in tune with their body and know how certain foods make them feel. If they’re having pizza, fast food, chances are it will make them lethargic.”
The point is to have a conversation about food with your child at any age, and all ages because of the risk of childhood obesity, said dietitians and pediatricians.
‘We see a lot of obesity, which contributes to cardiovascular problems and diabetes,” said Figallo.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that obesity is affecting about 12.7 million children and adolescents in the United States.
“Obesity prevalence among children and adolescents is still too high,” according to the CDC.
To combat obesity and encourage healthy eating habits, nutritional experts offer some suggestions:
▪ Avoid soda and other sweetened beverages including juice, said pediatric gastroenterologist Dr. Amanda Fifi, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Apple juice has more sugar than Sprite.” In addition, it’s better to eat fruits and vegetables rather than consume them as juice.
▪ Limit trips to fast-food restaurants where kids can load up on fried foods, unhealthy fats and added sugar.
▪ Prepare more food at home so you have more control over ingredients and portion size, said Talamas.
▪ Have plenty of healthy snacks around like raw vegetables, bowls of fresh fruit, plain yogurt, nuts and fruits so kids will have alternatives to soda, chips, cookies, said Leyanee Perez, registered dietitian at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, which has nutritionists in the tri-county area.
▪ Make time for the family to have a meal together, which enables children to see their parents eat healthy foods and gives them a chance to talk about their day.
▪ Encourage kids to exercise and spend less time in front of any screen. Help them find activities they like; play with them or go for walks, said Amigo.
If a child is overweight, focus on changing eating habits and not their weight. “Talking about weight just creates frustration and kids can have a lot of body image issues,” said Talamas.
Nutritional concerns can change a lot as children age, so here’s a breakdown of issues at different levels.
This is a good time to get kids involved with shopping at the grocery store or farmers’ markets.
Amigo said she takes her three daughters to the grocery store and asks them to “grab something they’ve never tried before in the produce line.”
While some foods may be a fail, picking out an item and helping to prepare it can make a child more willing to try something new, said Amigo.
With young children who are learning their colors, parents can talk to them about how foods have different nutrients and make it fun to add more colors to their plate, she said.
To make portion control easier, parents can follow the Choose My Plate guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Fifi. Half the plate is for fruits and vegetables, one quarter is for protein and the other quarter is for grains with dairy on the side (milk, cheese, yogurt).
“This is a healthy, balanced plate versus calorie counting,” said Fifi. “Figuring out portion sizes can be too hard for parents and kids, so they can use this measure.”
Parents can use a smaller, salad-size plate for young children and a standard plate for middle and high school kids, said Amigo.
Most children need at least 1½ cups of fruit and 2 cups or more of vegetables a day, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Try serving fruit for breakfast and as a snack and vegetables at lunch and dinner, said Figallo.
If kids balk at steamed vegetables, try them roasted or offer raw vegetables with tasty dips.
“If kids say they don’t like broccoli, ask them why,” said Talamas. “It could be they’re too mushy or hard or maybe it touched their rice and they didn’t like that.”
“Some of their habits are formed, so it’s harder,” said Figallo. But parents can still “educate them about the function of food.”
Preteens may be especially tempted by fatty fast foods so be sure to “tell them the consequences of bad eating habits.”
On the flip side, it’s vital these preteens know about healthier, alternative foods and needed nutrients.
“If a kid is active, we want to give them protein at every meal, including eggs, chicken, lean meat, fish or turkey,” said Talamas. “Beans are also a source of protein.”
“Older preteens and teens make their own decisions,” she said. “But when it comes to nutrition they’re still in their parents’ house. Remember everything starts with conversation.”
Teens, who are likely driving, have more power over their food choices.
If you haven’t taught them to reach nutrition labels, now’s the time, said Amigo.
“It’s important to teach kids how to read labels, so when they’re on their own they can see the serving size,” said Amigo. They also need to check the calories and the amount of sugar. “That’s a big one. Aim for below 10 grams, or 5 grams if it’s a smaller serving.”
Teens may become interested in fads, like high-energy drinks. “They need to be educated about putting that much caffeine into their bodies,” said Amigo
It’s also a time when body image can come into play.
When kids and parents talk about food and their changing bodies “it should not be a scary subject,” said Talamas. “These are healthy conversations about how the body changes. Teens might be comparing themselves to someone on social media who’s had their picture Photoshopped. We have unrealistic expectations.”
If a parent is concerned a teen might be having a body image problem,”take them to the doctor right away,” said Figallo. “Otherwise it can progress and become a bigger problem that’s dangerous.”
Do’s and Don’ts for Kids
▪ “Water is super important” for hydration, said Perez.
▪ Serve whole grains like brown rice and whole grain pasta. When buying bread, look for a whole grain as the first ingredient and stay away from products that say enriched flour, which strips the nutrients from it..
▪ Offer a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. “One fruit or vegetable is not going to have everything you need,” said Figallo. “All of them are important.”
▪ Ensure kids get enough dairy products — milk, plain yogurt, cheese — for bone health.
▪ Help kids choose healthy fats, such as avocados, salmon, walnuts and almonds.
▪ Look for fiber, found in whole grain products and fruit and vegetables. Fiber is necessary for good gut health, said Fifi.
▪ Don’t ban all sweets all the time. Kids might feel deprived and sweets will become even more desirable.