We all want our kids to eat healthy, try new foods and be adventurous little foodies, but when it comes to finding information about healthy eating for kids, there are so many sources, you don’t know where to start.
On the one hand, you have experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Then you have countless books, parenting websites and food blogs that have a wealth of kid-friendly recipes meant to encourage healthy eating. Of course, you also have Facebook groups for moms of picky eaters and Instagram influencers serving up picture-perfect school lunch ideas that are almost impossible to replicate.
I think all of these sources can help you raise healthy eaters, but sometimes all you really want is to have all of the information, tips and advice in one place.
So today, I’m serving up evidence-based information and my best strategies in this complete guide to healthy eating for kids.
Healthy eating habits for kids
The healthy eating habits we teach our kids now will set them up for success now and throughout their lives.
Make time for breakfast
The old adage “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” holds true today as it always has.
Kids who eat breakfast everyday have a higher daily consumption of key nutrients such as folate, calcium, iron and iodine than those who skip breakfast, an August 2017 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found.
Eating a healthy breakfast also gives kids the energy and focus they need to get through the day, and they may even do better in school. In fact, a June 2016 study in the journal Public Health Nutrition, which included 5,000 kids, found those who ate breakfast and those who ate a better quality breakfast, were twice as likely to do better in school than those who didn’t.
Eating breakfast is also associated with a lower risk for obesity and serious health conditions. According to a March 2016 study in the journal Pediatric Obesity, kids who ate breakfast at school, even if they already had breakfast at home, were less likely to be overweight or obese than those who skipped the meal.
Some kids don’t like to eat breakfast in the morning, while others simply don’t have the time. If your kid falls into this camp, be sure to read my blog post 7 Ways To Get Your Kids To Eat a Healthy Breakfast.
Serve new foods over and over again
Although parents have the best intentions, we can be one of the biggest obstacles to getting our kids to eat healthy.
Introducing new foods requires that we’re consistent—just like any other desirable behavior we’re working on.
In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), it can take between 8 and 15 times of introducing a new food for a child to accept it.
The earlier you put this into practice the better. In fact, a December 2007 study in the journal Food Quality and Preference found that when mothers introduced a vegetable their infants initially disliked, by the 8th day of serving it, their intake of it increased rapidly. By the 8th exposure their intake was similar to that of a vegetable they liked. Nine months later, 63 percent of the infants were still eating the originally disliked vegetable.
Eat meals together—it doesn’t have to be dinner!
Despite after-school activities, doctor’s appointments and errands, the good news is that most families do eat dinner—or other meals—together. According to a 2014 study, 88 percent of families say they eat meals together most days or a few days a week.
Although dinner is usually the meal most families eat together, sharing any meal is one of the best ways to teach kids healthy eating habits.
In fact, a 2011 meta-analysis published in the journal Pediatrics found that children who eat family meals together at least 3 times a week are less likely to be overweight, eat unhealthy foods, have disordered eating and are more likely to eat healthy foods. Sharing family meals together also teaches kids healthy eating habits like mindful eating and of course, manners.
Avoid food rewards
It can be tempting to offer your kids a snack or a treat to get them to behave well in a public place or to get through a doctor’s appointment without tears, for example.
But experts say we shouldn’t rely on food rewards.
According to parenting expert Amy McCready, (her book, If I Have To Tell You One More Time, is a must read for any parent):
“Quit rewarding your kids for behavior you should be able to expect.”
“…you’re doing your child no favor by doling out treats for his accomplishments or behavior. Instead, you’re setting him up for a “What’s in it for me?” attitude down the road.”
When you use food as a reward or as punishment, you’re also teaching your kids that food has power. As adults, they may treat themselves to dinner or a piece of cake after a long, stressful day.
Instead of using food as a reward, give your kid a hug, a high five or a sticker.
Cook with your kids
Teaching kids how to cook and prepare healthy meals is one of the most powerful habits you can teach your kids. According to a 2014 review in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, cooking programs for kids may positively affect their food preferences, attitudes and behaviors.
When you cook with your kids, don’t do it when you’re rushing to get dinner on the table. Leave plenty of time because they’ll inevitably ask questions and spill something.
Depending on your kids’ ages, younger kids can stir, mix and pour while older kids can measure, use appliances and chop ingredients.
If you’re not the greatest home chef or could simply use some pointers, I recommend you take my friend Katie Kimball’s Kids Cook Real Food online video eCourse.
Pay attention to portions
In addition to feeding kids healthy food, it’s also important to pay attention to portions.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), portion sizes have doubled, even tripled, over the past 20 years. Suffice to say, it’s one of the reasons we’re dealing with a childhood obesity epidemic.
This is something I struggle with in my home, especially because my kids usually ask for seconds.
Although they’re still young, I try to teach them portion control by using measuring cups for example, and by talking to them about what it feels like to be hungry, satisfied and full.
Don’t bribe kids with dessert
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of telling your kids they have to eat their vegetables if they want dessert but experts say this is a habit we should leave behind.
Dina Rose, PhD, author of It’s Not About The Broccoli calls this the “dessert deal.” She says this route teaches kids that vegetables are less desirable than dessert or should only be eaten to get dessert. She suggests re-thinking dessert and offering yogurt, baked fruit or a smoothie instead, for example.
Try to avoid eating on the run
One night, my daughter had back-to-back after-school activities and I let her eat dinner in the car. It was a sandwich and broccoli but I felt so awful about it that I vowed never to do it again.
Suffice to say, many kids eat snacks in the car or are forced to eat on the run because of busy afternoons or mornings. In fact, according to a survey by Barbara’s, 50 percent of kids who eat on the go or in the car skip breakfast at least once a week.
Meals are meant to be enjoyed and shared as a family. Eating in the car or on the run can cause kids to overeat and it teaches them that eating isn’t important—but just another activity to squeeze in that day.
Healthy Eating For Kids: Healthy Food For Kids
Fruits and vegetables
Despite our best efforts, most kids aren’t getting enough fruits and vegetables in their diets. According to a 2014 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6 in 10 children don’t eat enough fruit and 9 in 10 don’t eat enough vegetables.
Yet studies show eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower blood pressure, balance blood sugar, prevent weight gain and childhood obesity, reduce the risk for eye and digestive problems, heart disease and stroke, and prevent certain types of cancer.
Of course, when kids eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables it lays the foundation for healthy eating throughout their lifetimes.
Protein is important for your kids’ growth and development and meals with protein keep hunger at bay, balance blood sugar and give your kids the energy they need.
Protein should make up 1/4 of your child’s plate but you’ll want to focus on lean, quality protein sources instead of processed foods like deli meats and cheeses or hot dogs. Try chicken, beef, turkey, beans, edamame, tempeh, eggs and fish.
Whether your family is made up of vegetarians, vegans, pegans or full-fledged meat eaters, getting more plant-based foods in your kids’ diet is one of the best things you can do for their health.
Plant-based foods are packed with the nutrition kids need for their growth and development. Most plant-based foods also have filling fiber to satisfy their hunger and prevent constipation.
Recent studies show plant-based diets are linked to a lower risk of type-2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and obesity. A January 2015 study in the Journal Of Pediatrics found children who followed a plant-based, vegan diet or the American Heart Association diet lost weight, lowered their blood pressure and improved their cholesterol in just four weeks.
Grains should make up 1/4 of your child’s plate. Whole grains have vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and filling fiber, which are stripped from refined grains.
Try whole grain bread, pasta, brown rice, quinoa or another type of gluten-free grain.
Fish and seafood
Fish can be a hard sell for kids but the nutrients they contain are those kids need for healthy growth and development, according to the AAP.
Fish and seafood are packed with protein, low in saturated fat, rich in micronutrients, and an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which support kids’ brain health and memory.
Many types of fish also contain high levels of calcium and vitamin D and some types of shellfish are high in iron, selenium and iodine. Studies suggest consuming seafood may improve neurodevelopment in babies and decrease cardiovascular disease risk.
The FDA and EPA recommend kids eat fish 1 to 2 times a week starting at age 2. Despite its benefits, kids aren’t eating enough fish however, mainly due to concerns over mercury.
Yet salmon, sardines, shrimp and tuna (canned light) are all safe choices.
Related: What Types of Fish Are Safe for Kids?
The long-standing myth that eating fat causes high cholesterol, heart disease and weight gain has been debunked and we now know that healthy fats are essential to our health and our kids’.
Healthy fats are a vital source of energy and help satisfy kids’ hunger. They’re essential for healthy cell membranes, they support kids’ brains and the growth and development of their nervous systems, and help their bodies absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. They’re also necessary to make hormones and immune cells and they help regulate inflammation and metabolism.
While experts agree it’s the trans fats and some saturated fats that should be avoided, foods with healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats from whole foods are beneficial. However, it’s important to note that the AAP recommends healthy fats make up no more than 30 percent of kids’ total calories.
Foods To Cut Back On Or Eliminate
When it comes to healthy eating for kids, there are foods you should cut back on or eliminate altogether.
Sugary foods, sweetened drinks, chocolate milk and juice
Diets high in sugar are proven to lead to weight gain and obesity, type-2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and heart disease—all conditions that can follow kids throughout their lives.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend we limit sugar to no more than 10 percent of our total calories for the day.
For kids 2 and older, they should have less than 25 grams of added sugar a day.
The good news is that even cutting out small amounts of sugar can make a dramatic difference in your child’s health.
According to a February 2016 study in the journal Obesity, obese children who reduced the amount of sugar in their diets but didn’t change the amount of calories they consumed had improvements in their blood pressure, triglycerides, and LDL “bad” cholesterol after just 10 days. Researchers also saw significant improvements in their blood glucose and insulin levels.
Juice and sugary drinks are also high in empty calories, sugar, and carbohydrates, and drinking them can lead to weight gain, cavities and diarrhea.
In September, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry jointly issued new healthy kids’ drink guidelines for parents, so be sure to check them out.
Most processed foods are loaded with sodium, sugar, saturated fat and artificial ingredients you can’t identify or pronounce. They also lack fiber and the vitamins and minerals kids need in their diets.
Research shows processed foods, but more specifically the sodium, sugar, saturated fat, trans fat, and food additives they contain, are linked to weight gain and childhood obesity, high blood pressure, and mental health and behavioral problems.
But your child’s health now isn’t all you should be thinking about. Eating foods with added sugars and sodium early on can affect their taste preferences, the foods they eat and their health later on in life.
Experts say the more processed foods you eat—and the longer you eat them—the more likely inflammation, leaky gut syndrome and a host of health conditions will crop up in the future.
In fact, a May 2019 study in the journal Cell Metabolism found adults who consumed ultra-processed foods for 2 weeks consumed 500 extra calories than those who consumed unprocessed foods.
Two other recent studies show that consuming ultra-processed foods are linked to a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and death.
Foods high in sodium
Approximately 90 percent of kids get too much sodium in their diets each day and more than 40 percent of it comes from only 10 foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which about 3.5 percent of kids already have, according to the AAP. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, heart failure, kidney disease and vision loss, among other health conditions.
So even if your kids don’t have high blood pressure now, if they continue to eat too much sodium, there’s a good chance they will in the future.
How To Save Money On Food
If you’re like me, one of the biggest line items next to your mortgage and taxes is the grocery store bill.
According to a recent report by the USDA, most families spend between $130 and $300 a week on food. How much you spend depends on a lot of factors including the part of the country you live in, if you live in the city, the suburbs or a rural area, the size of your family and if you buy organic, conventional or both.
Nevertheless, there are ways to save money on food. Some include:
- Make a list before you go to the grocery store.
- Shop at big box stores like Target or membership clubs like Costco.
- Meal plan.
- Cut down on food waste.
- Buy foods in bulk.
- Shop sales and use cash back apps like Ibotta or FetchRewards.
- Buy cheap, healthy foods.
- Eat more plant-based meals.
- Use your store’s loyalty card.
- Buy generic instead of brand names.