A balanced nutritious diet is essential for a growing child that will keep him/her away from diseases and infections. A diet that contains all the necessary nutrients from each of the food groups: vitamins, energy, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates, is a balanced diet. Children are picky eaters, especially in the age group of 2 to 10 years. Parents play an important role in shaping a healthy eating habit in the children. Most children are reluctant to try new foods and find ways to eat routine and familiar foods. Smell, sight, texture and touch are few elements that make children accept certain foods. Apart from these, the social and immediate environment also plays a huge role in shaping their tastes. With childhood obesity on the rise, parents are making concerted efforts in preparing a healthy diet plan. However, a healthy meal plan often falls midway due to lack of consistency, tantrums, genetic reasons, and narrow exposure to different types of foods. Considering a child’s psychology and appetite, it is important to encourage healthy eating by incorporating few tactics such as being a role model, involving them in the process of shopping and cooking meals, preparing kid friendly versions of dishes or by planning menus together.
Lay the ground
Setting the right eating habit right from the childhood bears fruitful results in the long run. Most parents face increased challenges in making the children eat nutritious food. Peer pressure, commercial advertising, increasing need to assert their freedom over food choice are some of the reasons why a child often becomes a picky eater. Planning a nutritious meal plan that covers all the essential nutrients from the food groups will enable your child’s optimal growth and development. If the child does not show interest in following the meal, the parents can often sneak ways that encourages a picky eater to consume healthy foods. Incorporate healthy foods in a kid friendly format such as brownies, smoothies, veggies in pasta, flavoring the vegetables in delicious ways, making up vegetable and fruit stories to make meal time much more fun. Explore alternate food options that are equally nutritious if the child does not seem to like a particular dish or food such as fruit yogurt, nuts, whole grain cookies etc. It is often difficult to obtain all the nutrients of the main food groups with limited number of foods. Your child will have a healthy development and growth as long as he is exposed to a range of foods belonging to each of the food groups.
In the effort towards healthy eating, even though you may be excited to introduce a range of foods, the child will be in for a shock to see a plate full of fruits and veggies in front of him one fine morning. Make your child aware of nutritional eating before you try a new veggie or a healthy dish. Commit yourself to try a healthy option every day before it becomes a regular habit.
The goal: Depending on the child’s gender, age and metabolism levels, determine the amount of required calories. An average child aged 4 to 8 years requires about 1200 (girl) – 1400 (boy) calories per day.
The strategy: Distribute the intake of nutrients across the meal during the day, including snacks. Offer a variety of foods that include grains, dairy products, snacks that are low in sugar, beans, lean meat and plenty of fruits and vegetables. You can make the meals colorful and interesting with lot of recipes that have kid appeal.
Breakfast: Breakfast being the first meal of the day must be energetic and tasty. Half a cup of cereal, half cup baked sweet potato, one small apple and half cup non-fat or fat free or skimmed milk and water.
Morning snack: Yogurt or quarter cup of mixed fruits.
Lunch: A thin slice of bacon or beans with pork and tomato sauce (half cup) along with half cup of green salad and half cup of 100% fruit juice and water.
Afternoon snack: Half cup of almonds and quarter cup of sliced carrots.
Dinner: Sauce, ready-to-serve salsa (1¼ table spoons), half cup of whole milk and half cup chicken giblets.
Even though you may have to repeat the same food groups across the meals, aim to serve small servings of a variety of food groups in each meal. There must be balance among the food groups. Make the dishes in ways that are interesting for the kids.
The goal: Along with the fruits and vegetables, it is essential that the kids get sufficient amounts of protein, dairy and grains. Proteins helps primarily in growth and development, grains contain fiber to keep the process of digestion healthy and active, and dairy products are required for bone and mass development.
The strategy: Please bear in mind the current developmental stage of the kid while planning the weekly menu. Avoid short-order cooking and let the kids decide what to eat. They should be given limited nutritional choices within which they can choose what and how much to eat.
Breakfast: Half slice of raisin or oatmeal bread, quarter cup of corn, quarter cup avocados, whole milk with chocolate flavor.
Morning snack: Quarter cup cooked or canned cherries and cheddar cheese.
Lunch: Scrambled eggs (large), cheese spread, quarter cup of asparagus and quarter cup mango and water.
Afternoon snack: Muffins, candy fudge and half cup of reduced fat or low fat milk.
Dinner: Stewed tomatoes, lamb cutlets, fresh figs and half cup low fat buttermilk.
Young kids will assert independence and freedom over the choice of foods, especially on the fruit and veggies front. If you succeed in getting your child in eating healthy, you must praise them for healthy eating. However, bear in mind, that overdoing it may backfire since children start questioning the reason behind such motivation and this can change their attitude towards healthy eating.
The goal: Make sure you get the children to like the vegetables rather than making them eat the vegetables. Keep it attractive in all shapes and forms that children find interesting to try the vegetable.
The strategy: Be a role model to your child. A child will show curiosity and keenness to enjoy healthy ways of eating when he sees you preferring and relishing such foods.
Breakfast: 1 piece baked sweet potato, half piece bagel, quarter cup strawberries, and half cup low fat milk.
Morning snack: Half piece cheesecake, half cup grape fruit juice, and one small corn muffin.
Lunch: Half cup green salad, half cup beans with franks, half banana and 100 ml milk.
Afternoon snack: Half cup milk shake, half cup fruit salad and two crackers.
Dinner: Half pita bread, quarter cup bamboo shoots, chicken nuggets, thinly sliced water melon and water.
It does take quite some time before you child accepts nutrition and healthy food as part of her life. In the course of ensuring that you get your child to eat healthy, do not use food as a reward. Research shows that such tactics do not help in the long run since children push nutritious food down their throat to get the reward.
The goal: Though it is natural for you to reward your child for a number of situations, it is better not to link food with achievement. Instead, use non-food rewards. This will make them feel even better and they will feel a sense of accomplishment. For example, a hair cut, stickers on a chart or a local outing are some ideal rewards.
The strategy: Opt for nutritional choices even for desserts such as oat brownies, walnut cake etc. This way the children will grow up liking healthy food rather than viewing them as ‘obligation’ foods.
Breakfast: French toast sticks (one and a half piece), strawberry milkshake and quarter cup Brussels’ sprouts.
Morning snack: Quarter cup beet greens, power bar, 1 piece apricot.
Lunch: Grilled cheese sandwich, quarter cup carrots, half cup creamed vegetable soup and one date.
Afternoon snack: Celery with peanut butter.
Dinner: Half cup vegetable fried brown rice, half cup pine nuts, quarter cup cantaloupe melons.
Ensure that the whole process of cooking takes little time, else it will stress you out and this will show its effect indirectly on the children. Prepare easy dishes and keep aside complicated dishes or veggies for the weekends.
The goal: Plan weekly meals ahead and ensure that there is maximum nutrition variety and food exposure for the kids. There are tons of easy recipes that are quite quick to prepare.
The Strategy: Choose at least one rich vitamin C fruit and vitamin A vegetable almost every day. Scatter intake of fish twice a week, provide variety of protein options by including lean meats, poultry and beans. Use low fat yogurt every day for a rich source of calcium and finally do make a healthy choice on the vegetable oil such as olive, canola that are low in omega-6 fatty acids.
Breakfast: 1 cup cornflakes cereal, half cup papaya and 2% fat milk.
Morning snack: Quarter cup potato salad, quarter cup honey dew melons, cheese food.
Lunch: Quarter cup broccoli, half slice bacon and egg sandwich, half cup orange juice
Afternoon snack: Plain granola bar, quarter cup raisins and half cup prune juice.
Dinner: Chickpeas 1/8 cup, half cup creamed chicken soup, quarter cup cooked spinach, half piece star fruit.
Kids are highly imaginative and creative. They will get bored if you serve food that ‘looks’ plain and with no decoration. They need better aids to accept nutritious foods. If it looks good, it is easier to make kids try the health foods. Remember that presentation is quite crucial especially during the initial days of getting your children to eat healthy.
The goal: Improving the flavor, texture and the appeal of the food will surely interest your child to try something new.
The strategy: Children like mild flavors and warm colors such as green, orange, yellows and browns. Deck up the food with a mix of macaroni and cheese with strings of green peppers or add color with slices of paprika or sweet potato fries with a bowl of mixed fruit.
Breakfast: Half English muffin, half cup macaroni, half cup sweet potato and 3.35% fat whole milk.
Morning snack: Half bar of fig bars, half cup of almonds and raisins, and half piece medium kale.
Lunch: Half piece cheese pizza, two large strawberries and half cup fruit juice.
Afternoon snack: 10 small cheese crackers, alfalfa sprouts with whipped cream topping, half cup lemon juice.
Dinner: Quarter cup beans, half fish fillet, quarter cup cooked cabbage and half brownie.
Do not brand your child as a ‘picky eater’. Your child’s disinterest in a vegetable or a fruit two weeks ago should not discourage you from trying the healthy food/dish again after sometime. Children are always in the process of learning, even with foods. Even though it takes time, kids will try new foods in their own ways.
The goal: The environment during meal times must be completely devoid of any pressure which increases the chances of the kids eating wider variety of foods.
The strategy: Try serving food in smaller portions especially when you want to give him/her a new healthy dish. Using plates that are small will make large portions look small. Keep meal times fun by incorporating creative approaches to enhance the visual interest on the table. Triangular, square plates do spark some interest than the plain old round plates. Garnish the dishes with tomato flowers, pineapple hearts or zucchini ribbons to keep the dishes attractive. You can also use different mild seasonings such as herbs, dark cocoa or coffee grounds to give dishes the exotic edge.
Breakfast: Half cup power waffles, banana and milk.
Morning snack: Half nutri-grain cereal bar, 2 dried figs and half cup low fat chocolate milk
Lunch: Half cup lean meat and beans, half cup green salad, quarter cup carrot juice.
Afternoon snack: Half cup frozen fruit yogurt, half cup fruit salad and half piece brownie.
Dinner: Half cup chicken giblets, quarter cup cauliflower and half cup cantaloupe melons.
The take away
The above meal plan aims to provide about 1,400 calories per day. This meal plan gives primary importance to incorporating items from each food group to create a good nutritional balance for the child. Young age is the right time to inculcate good food habits and these habits die hard even as they embrace adulthood. An environment where the family follows and supports healthy nutritious habits naturally helps the child to get the message to indulge in eating healthy and establishes a lifelong habit of eating the right positive food that helps nourishment. Coupled with good amount of physical exercise, children will manage to keep away from various diseases and infections including obesity which is the curse of modern day lifestyle.