About our contributor, Christine Reese, MS, RD: Christine has a Masters in Nutrition and has been a Registered Dietitian for 8 years. Although she is vegan and cooks accordingly, her 3-year-old son eats an omnivorous diet. Her background includes counseling on weight loss, diabetes, and kidney disease in adults. She loves talking about all things nutrition.
Many of us are familiar with new years resolutions regarding weight loss and improved eating habits. Perhaps this year we want to include our preschoolers in the desire for health-promoting eating behaviors. Why not? Children learn by watching us, and there is no time like the present to incorporate brain-boosting, immunity-enhancing, bone-strengthening foods into our kids’ snacks and meals. It is also a good time to reduce reliance on (and perhaps even addiction to) foods and drinks that more closely resemble a chemistry experiment than something edible and nourishing.
With opinionated preschoolers, some of whom are highly selective eaters, it is easier said than done. Take heart, however, because the effects are worth the effort, and armed with some tips, we can start our preschoolers’ new year on a nutritious note that flourishes into long-lasting, health-promoting eating behaviors.
Tip #1: Compliment the chef. Why do companies use famous cartoon characters and celebrities to market food (and toys) to our kids? Because our kids like and look up to the characters and are thus influenced by them. Though sometimes hard to believe, we parents have the most influence over our children, and it is my thought that we should try to sell our cooking. I speak from experience here, and think part of the reason my son so willingly tries, at least one bite, most everything I make, is because he frequently hears compliments about my cooking. And, fortunately for me, the comments are usually addressed directly to him, such as, “your mom is a good cook.” As his influential mind absorbs this information, he possibly comes to the conclusion that what I make tastes good and can be eaten. (Sorry to toot my own cooking horn; I just want to provide a tangible example). So give compliments freely to whoever is the chef of the family.
Tip #2: Repeat. Perhaps we feel great about our cooking, but our little ones are not into that new broccoli dish we made last night. If you and/or the rest of your family agree the dish is tasty, wait a few weeks and serve (and compliment) again. Research indicates preschoolers may need up to 15 tries to accept and like a new food.
Tip #3: Let them have opinions. When deciding on the weekly meal plan prior to grocery shopping, I think of a few meals to prepare for sure. Next, I think of several more options and ask my son if he is interested in eating them in the coming week. If he answers yes, I am ready to go; if not, we come up with some foods that do sound good. Of course, they have to pass the “mom test” and be nutritious, but we usually reach an agreement. If worse comes to worse, or involving kids is not in the cards, then use your best judgment, and/or have PB & J handy.
Tip #4: Dessert for all. As human beings, we are inclined to prefer sweet, fatty foods, because eating them helped ensure our survival when food was scarce. Our preschoolers seem to exhibit this desire more than anyone else, which can make it difficult for us to steer them toward healthy offerings. Although this post is about decreasing such sugary, fatty foods, it is not about entirely eliminating them. So, when you do have dessert, include everyone, whether or not they ate all their veggies. I am against using food as a reward, especially when it makes eating healthier fare a punishment. Either everyone at the table gets dessert (if desired), or no one. And when you do decide to have dessert, then…
Tip #5: Be selective. Not all goodies are created equal. The path of healthful eating will have many diversions, and we must choose the best direction for our preschoolers. When selecting goodies for my son, I try to choose the items that contain more substance than sugar. For example, dark chocolate, and dark chocolate-containing desserts, are my preference, and after that, things that don’t contain artificial ingredients. As for cake and cookies, homemade options are best, because you can control the quality of ingredients, including reducing sugar a little.
Tip #6: Out of site, out of mind. This motto really works. If the cookies/candy/potato chips are not around to grab, they can’t possibly be eaten. Have alternatives available, including in-season fruit, pre-washed and chopped veggies with hummus, or blue corn tortilla chips and salsa. Skip the Capri-Suns and Sunny D and instead stock 100% fruit juice, sparkling water, even tea, depending on the tastes of your child. In this case, we say “in sight, in mind.”
Tip #7: Fruit/Veggie each meal. Speaking of “in sight, in mind,” one of the simplest ways to help our preschoolers eat more produce is to serve fruit and/or vegetables with each meal. Perhaps they will not eat it, but the idea forms in their minds that fruit and veggies are a part of the eating plan. If you consistently serve fruit/veggies they like, odds are they will eat it. For example, my son loves green peas, but not green beans, so I only serve the beans every so often. As many of us can attest, kids typically prefer fruit, and some days that’s what will be served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Usually, I aim for vegetable servings at dinner, because I have a little more time to prepare this meal, and the veggie usually compliments the main dish much better than a lunch dish. Really, the goal is to get our children used to eating produce at each meal.
Hopefully, some of these tips will be useful to you and your family on your journey to nutritious eating. Just one more thing: it’s okay to not eat “perfectly;” I don’t know anyone who can manage that feat. The goal is to incorporate more fruit and vegetables in our children’s daily meal plans, and if we fall short one day, we try again the next.