Preschoolers and New Years Resolutions

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. 

Learning About Anti-oxidants

We always incorporate a nutrition discussion during snack time, and we are lucky that one of our parents is a registered dietician. Christine Reese, MS, RD, comes to the classroom about once a month and speaks to the students about an aspect of nutrition. Some of the concepts can be quite complicated, so Ms. Reese simplifies the lesson and provides colorful, interactive visuals to help the students retain the information. The children look forward to her talks and to the delicious snacks she brings! Ms. Reese sends home a handout filled with detailed information for the parents.

One of our students moves the skeleton's joints, helping to understand that anti-oxidants help our joints.

One of our students moves the skeleton’s joints, helping to understand that anti-oxidants help our joints.

Our letter of the week was “Oo,” so Ms. Reese discussed anti-“O”xidants. She provided us with valuable information:

Anti-oxidants are substances that help fight free radicals. Free radicals are elements produced in our bodies every day, for a variety of reasons. Normal bodily functions, such as breathing and generating energy; lifestyle choices, like smoking, excessive drinking, and even exercise; and external factors like environmental pollutants, pesticides, and x-rays, all create free radicals. If these free radicals are left alone, they attack healthy cells and cause damage to DNA, blood vessels and other tissues, leading to conditions such as early aging, cardiovascular disease, cataracts, arthritis, loss of cognitive function, and even cancer. This is a process called oxidation, and anti-oxidants protect healthy cells by binding and neutralizing the free radicals. For example, when you slice an apple, oxidation causes the apple slices to turn brown. However, rubbing the slices with lemon juice prevents oxidation from occurring, and hence prevents the browning/damage.

Fortunately for our preschoolers and us, nature provides numerous anti-oxidants:

Vitamin C–Necessary for growth and repair of body tissues; important to collagen formation, which is a protein found in skin, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels; helps regenerate vitamin E. Can be found in strawberries, peaches, kiwi fruit, citrus fruit, bell peppers, broccoli, potatoes

Vitamin E–Stops the formation of free radicals when fat cells are oxidized; prevents blood from clotting within blood vessels. Can be found in nuts, seeds, oils, spinach, wheat germ, peanut butter

Carotenoids (beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, zeanxanthan)–Protect vision and eye health; maintain skin health. Can be found in tomatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash (acorn, butternut), carrots, watermelon, guava, mango

Glucosinolates–supports liver in detoxfying cancer-causing chemicals. Can be found in brussels sprouts, broccoli, broccoli sprouts, kale, collards, bok choy

Catechins–Aid in the repair of damaged DNA; inhibit oxidation of LDL-cholesterol. Can be found in tea, dark chocolate, apple, grapes, raspberries, avocados.

Anthocyanins–Modulate cellular pathways and signaling, which may prevent cancerous cells from forming or growing. Can be found in purple or concord grapes, purple onions and cabbage; purple peppers and potatoes; eggplant; blueberries and blackberries.

Ms. Reese talks to the class about anti-oxidants while Ms. Taryn helps with the visual aid.

Ms. Reese talks to the class about anti-oxidants while Ms. Taryn helps with the visual aid.

Something else anti-oxidants have in common is that they are mainly found in plant foods, especially colorful produce, and is why nutrition experts often tell us to feed our kids a rainbow of foods every day. There are no specific daily requirements at this time, perhaps because researchers are still learning about them, but also because there are so many. When it comes to actual food, you cannot eat too many anti-oxidants, however, it is possible in some cases to consume too much in the form of supplements. Therefore, at this time, it is best to get anti-oxidants from food, especially because they appear to work best when they come from food. For example, anti-oxidants and other food constituents work synergistically to protect healthy cells and fight damaging free radicals, whereas supplements taken alone do not have the other food constituents in the just the right amounts to help them out, and can easy overwhelm our cells. In addition, no single anti-oxidant can offer the protection of anti-oxidants working together, and typically more than one anti-oxidant is found in each plant food.

Ultimately, the “more matters” slogan for fruit and vegetables is applicable for a variety of reasons, one being to ensure adequate anti-oxidant consumption for better long-term health, and as parents and educators, we can plant the seed for preschoolers now.

The Importance of Early Childhood Nutrition

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. 

 In the early days of U.S. nutrition goal setting, scientists and experts focused on preventing deficiencies and undernutrition. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, these remain important problems for children. Here at home, however, we are faced with different nutritional problems; problems that stem from too much junk food, available 24 hours a day, and available incredibly cheap.

More and more the evidence is mounting that what our preschoolers eat has a great impact on their cognitive development, physical growth, immunity, and even emotional well being. Depending on what our children eat, that impact can be positive or negative.

I believe I speak for all of us parents in that we want our children to be successful, now and throughout all their life stages. In order to stack the odds, we need to properly nourish them to provide for optimal cognitive development. Cognitive development encompasses brain growth related to learning, memory, perception, attention, thinking, and decision-making. Brain development happens rapidly during these preschool years, and what we feed our children has a direct influence.

Nutrients important for optimal cognitive development include iron, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, B-complex, omega-3 fatty acids, whole grain carbohydrates, and protein. What foods contain these nutrients? Foods higher in protein also tend to contain iron and zinc, and these comprise meat, poultry, fish, as well as the non-animal options legumes (peas, lentils, beans, peanuts/peanut butter), nuts, and seeds. Whole grain carbohydrates are good sources of B vitamins, and include whole grain rice, pasta, bread, quinoa, and oats. The one exception to this is vitamin B12, which is only found in animal foods and fortified plant foods. Thus, if your child doesn’t eat animal products regularly, you will want to supplement his/her diet with an age-appropriate B12 vitamin. Vitamins A and C, to a certain extent vitamin E, as well as a host of numerous phytochemicals (chemicals produced by plants that affect health), fiber, and other vitamins and minerals are to be found in fruit and vegetables. Vitamin E is found in nuts, seeds, and many vegetable oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in some fish, as well as walnuts, walnut oil, canola oil, soybean foods, ground flax seeds, and chia seeds.

In order for our children’s learning capacities to be at their highest, breakfast is a must, and breakfast is a great way to incorporate protein, whole grains, fruit, and possibly nuts. For example, old-fashioned oatmeal made with milk or fortified soymilk (vanilla flavor is really yummy), topped with chopped nuts and/or dried fruit, and served with 100% juice provides a growing brain with protein, whole grains, nuts, and fruit, along with all the accompanying vitamins and minerals.

As a side note, although cow’s milk contains protein, calcium, and vitamin B12, it is a poor source of iron; if consumed in excess, it can actually inhibit iron absorption. Fortified soymilk, on the other hand, also contains protein, calcium, and vitamin B12; however, it does provide iron (and some omega-3 fatty acids).

Perhaps some of our children are not adventurous eaters. Perhaps they reject many of the foods that are best for cognitive development. In my next post, I’ll discuss ways we can help our preschoolers eat nutritious, brain and body boosting foods.

 

(1)Nyaradi, A., et al. The role of nutrition in children’s neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013; 7: 97. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3607807/

(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognition

(3) Ross, A. Nutrition and its effects on academic performance. How can our schools improve? http://www.nmu.edu/sites/DrupalEducation/files/UserFiles/Files/Pre-Drupal/SiteSections/Students/GradPapers/Projects/Ross_Amy_MP.pdf

(4) Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center: Phytochemicals http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/phytochemicals.html