As parents, we want the best -- and only the best -- for our children. Of course, we also want our children to be happy, and few things light up a kid’s face faster than a giant bag of Halloween candy, soda pop, and basically anything containing delicious, tooth-destroying sugars. And as our children grow up, it only gets harder to make sure they get the essential nutrition they need for proper growth and development.
Not only that, but as kids learn independence, every night can feel like you’re fighting the War for the Dinner Table. That’s why we’ve created an all-encompassing guide for parents of picky eaters everywhere that’s easy to follow and contains all the key information required to provide the best nutrition for your children at any age.
Whether you’re dealing with picky eaters toddler tantrums, supertasters, surly teens, or kids with texture problems, there are a few simple strategies for teaching kids to eat healthy every day. In fact, this entire approach can be simplified into a three-step plan:
- Start Outside the Kitchen
- Prepare Inside the Kitchen
- Teach at the Table
Remember: the key to providing the proper nutrition for your child is balance. While the food pyramid model is considered to be obsolete, it’s critical for your child to receive a healthy balance of protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. Keep in mind that these amounts are highly dependent on your child’s activity level, sex, and growth rate.
Kitty Wicks, LCSW, is the owner of StartingBlock Fitness, a blended psychotherapy and fitness practice in Arlington, VA. Over the course of her 20-year career, Kitty has worked with many parents whose children struggle with food issues. Her advice:
“Not defining foods as ‘all bad’ or ‘all good’, but rather encouraging moderation and healthy choices. Keeping a house full of healthy snack options for when children are hungry. Helping the child get in tune with feeling ‘full’ or ‘hungry’. Our children imitate our eating habits, so the most important thing you can do is to role model balanced, healthy eating for your child,” says Kitty.
Of course, none of that matters if your kids won’t eat that delicious, balanced meal you put in front of them.
Healthy Eating: How To Deal With Picky Eaters
It can be understandably difficult to get your child to eat healthy foods. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of tips and ideas for inside and outside of the kitchen to get your child more accustomed to healthy eating habits.
Start Outside The Kitchen
Healthy eating habits start outside of the kitchen. That’s why it’s important for your child to get as much physical activity as possible before mealtimes. The hungrier your child is at dinnertime, the less picky they’ll be. It’s also a great way to get kids to enjoy veggies.
Remember: the best time to offer your kids those dreaded vegetables is when they're at their hungriest. According to SuperKids Nutrition, parents should “Offer veggies when kids are hungry, for example after school or playing outdoors. Thinly sliced cucumbers in their favorite dressing, edamame with soy sauce or crunchy veggies like carrots with hummus or bean dip taste great."
Try to get your child involved in activities like grocery shopping, visiting the farmer’s market, and meal planning, too. Not only will they appreciate the quality time with you, but they’re likely to pick up some healthy habits. If you have the time and resources available, growing a garden where you can harvest your own vegetables is also a surefire way to convert your kid into a healthy food fanatic.
Many parents also forget that healthy snacks are a crucial part of healthy eating. If you can identify a few healthy snack foods that your kids actually enjoy, you can take a lot of pressure off of the dinner table. Healthy snack bars, carrots, raisins, and other foods help kids get the vitamins and nutrients they need without force feeding them broccoli at dinner.
Prepare Inside the Kitchen
There are countless methods for incorporating more healthy foods into your child’s diet. Smoothies, for example, can be loaded with fruits and even certain vegetables for a power-packed breakfast or nutritious side to any meal. While they tend to be high in sugar, they’re also packed with essential vitamins. You can even add yogurt, protein powder, or any other number of nutrient-boosting ingredients. And here’s a protip for picky eaters: smoothies are often the best way to get kids to eat those green vegetables they hate so much. Here’s just one popular green smoothie recipe.
Always keep healthy snacks available in the kitchen, as these can be used as alternate side dishes if necessary. Granola bars, fruit cups, cereal, yogurt, healthy snack bars, and low-fat cheese sticks are all great options. And when it comes to cooking, there are numerous ways to make healthy meals out of foods that are traditionally unhealthy. Pizza, for example, is a recipe that can easily be turned into a health food. There are recipes for whole grain crust, cauliflower crust, and toppings can include any vegetables your child likes. Almost any meal you think of can be turned around and made into a healthy alternative without sacrificing much taste. And because your kids will already be familiar with the texture and flavor profile, they’re more likely to enjoy the meal.
Teach at the Dinner Table
When your child feels as though they have a choice in what they put into their body, they’re more likely to make better health decisions. Giving them choices for sides and healthy snacks will boost their confidence and sense of identity while also reducing any feelings of being controlled. For example -- apple or orange? Snack bars or granola bars? Yogurt or cheese stick?
It’s also recommended to keep a bottle of every kid’s favorite condiment -- ketchup -- on your dinner table. While it may be high in sodium and sugar, it’s a small price to pay if it gets your child to eat their vegetables.
However, Kitty Wicks warns that parents shouldn’t put too much pressure on their kids at the dinner table. Teaching at the table doesn’t mean lecturing; it means modeling a healthy relationship with food.
“The biggest mistake is when parents control or over-manage their child's eating,” Wicks says.
“From a developmental standpoint, both toileting and eating should be within a child's control by age three. When parents are overly controlling, they rob their child of the physiological processes of knowing when he or she is full and feeling hungry. These are necessary in order to develop healthy eating patterns.”
Overall, getting children to eat healthy foods starts with parents. If you model good eating habits, your child is likely to emulate them.
Okay, But What Should They Be Eating? Healthy Eating at Any Age:
Okay, so you’ve won the War for the Dinner Table, now what?
Here’s a nutritional guide that will help you plan balanced meals and healthy snacks for growing kids.
The Early Developmental Years (Ages 2-3)
For toddlers, it’s recommended to consume between 1,000 and 1,400 calories per day. Fat intake generally should not exceed 30% to 35% of calories. During this phase, parents should aim to provide for their children:
- Protein: 2 to 4 ounces
- Fruits: 1 to 1.5 cups
- Vegetables: 1 to 1.5 cups
- Grains: 3 to 5 ounces
- Dairy: 2 cup
Keep in mind that aside from eating three balanced meals each day, children should also be provided with at least two healthy snacks.
The Elementary Years (Ages 4-8)
Once your child is no longer a toddler, they require a slight increase in daily calories and portions. This high-energy phase of development calls for an average of 1,200 and 2,000 calories each day, with no more than 25% to 30% of calories from fat. At this phase, children should be provided:
- Protein: 3 to 5.5 ounces
- Fruits: 1 to 2 cups
- Vegetables: 1.5 to 2.5 cups
- Grains: 4 to 6 ounces
- Dairy: 2.5 cups
The Preteen Years (Ages 9-13)
During the preteen stage of development, parents may find their children to be more active and energetic than ever before. They’ll require more calories and portions due to the sharp spike in your child’s energy level. During this phase, children should be consuming between 1,400 and 2,600 calories per day, and fat intake should not exceed 25% to 35% of caloric intake. Recommended portion sizes are as follows:
- Protein: 4 to 6.5 ounces
- Fruits: 1.5 to 2 cups
- Vegetables: 1.5 to 3.5 cups
- Grains: 5 to 9 ounces
- Dairy: 3 cups
The Adolescent Years (Ages 14-18)
Activity levels can highly vary throughout this stage, but the average recommended daily caloric intake should be between 1,800 and 3,200. Fat intake should not exceed 25% to 35% of calories. During this stage, teens will usually want and need more snacks. A good rule of thumb is to provide foods like healthy snack bars a few hours after one meal ends, or about one to two hours before the next meal.
Parents should aim to provide:
- Protein: 5 to 7 ounces
- Fruits: 1.5 to 2.5 cups
- Vegetables: 2.5 to 4 cups
- Grains: 6 to 10 ounces
- Dairy: 3 cups
Again, remember that these amounts are highly based on various factors such as growth rate, sex, and activity level.
Above all, meal planning should be centered around six essential vitamins and minerals for your child’s development:
- Vitamin B
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
It’s also important to limit your child’s sugar intake as much as possible (sugar intake should not exceed 12g per day). Sugar is proven to be addictive, and getting your child to develop healthy eating habits from a young age is the best way to keep them healthy in the future.
Finally, remember to give yourself a break! If you’re a parent thinking about how to provide the most nutritious, healthy meals for your kids, then you’re already ahead of the curve. There’s no one-size fits all solution or magic formula to get kids to eat healthy.
Above all, stay connected by communicating about what’s healthy and what might not be so healthy. Talk with your children about their dietary likes and dislikes. And most importantly, stay involved with your children’s lives. If you see their relationship with food becoming unhealthy, always be there to provide support.
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