A Healthy Child: Tips on How Best to Feed Your Kids Through all Stages of Childhood
Healthy food. Healthy play. Healthy life.
This mantra adorns the Wellness Wall in our pediatric exam rooms. It serves as a reminder to physician, parent, and child of the simple foundation for a healthy childhood. Diet-related disease is an ever-increasing cause of illness and death in the United States, with one-third of premature deaths attributable to poor nutrition and physical inactivity. One-third of children aged 2–19 are overweight, with obesity rates doubling in children and tripling in adolescents over the past 20 years.
When completing my pediatric training in the late 1990s, we didn’t see “adult” diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type II diabetes. Now such conditions are becoming commonplace in children. We’ve all heard the sobering prediction that today’s children are the first generation that will live a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Hoping to halt or reverse this trend, pediatricians aim to provide nutritional building blocks for children and families.
As a pediatrician, I meet families at varying points along their wellness journeys. Some parents quote Michael Pollan, make all their food from scratch, and wouldn’t dream of eating from a drive-through window. Others are overwhelmed with busy lives, juggling jobs, children, and activities, and rely on the ease and cost of pre-packaged, processed foods to feed their families. Many parents believe that fruit snacks are actually fruit. (For the record, they are not!) Others battle their own weight issues and want something different for their children. Most parents simply want to feed their children as best and affordably as possible. While exciting to see families already living la vida local, it can be even more gratifying to work with parents who view the addition of a new baby as their entry point into healthier eating for the entire family.
Pediatricians are asked more questions about HOW and WHAT to feed children than any other topic. The introduction and advancement of foods in a child’s diet causes some parents great stress. Nutrition messages are often misleading, as they are created by corporate marketers as opposed to health experts. As a pediatrician, I work to guide families towards healthful eating at all stages of childhood. How do we tackle this as early as possible?
First Foods: An infant’s first solid food has traditionally been white rice cereal. We encourage parents to choose less-processed, more nutritious first foods, such as whole grain cereal, vegetables, or fruits. We also encourage parents to make at least some of their baby’s food from scratch. Some find this idea daunting, but it truly only involves steaming and blending whatever the family is eating. This helps parents think about feeding their young one “real” food and avoids an early habit of eating from a box or jar.
One Family. One Meal: As infants become toddlers, it is developmentally normal for their appetite to vary, some days eating multiple servings, others, refusing anything on their plate. Many parents panic when their toddler won’t eat what is served, often making a second meal to ensure their child eats something. We promote the tenet “Parent Provides. Child Decides.” In today’s busy world, there isn’t time to be a short-order cook. Preparing one healthy, balanced meal for everyone saves time, money, and frustration.
Decrease Snacks & Sugary Drinks: U.S. children have moved toward snacking three times a day with 40% of calories coming from highly processed snack foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. Our culture believes that kids “need” to snack all day long. Not so. Children who graze throughout the day don’t learn hunger or fullness cues. When offered, snacks should be viewed as mini-meals, consisting of at least two food groups and nutrient-rich foods. Most snacks should contain fruits and/or vegetables and be served seated at a table, not carried around by the child. Children also do not “need” juice or sugary beverages. Milk and water are nutritious offerings.
Make Meal Planning, Prep, and Dining a Family Affair: The importance of eating family meals at least three times a week cannot be over-emphasized. Coming together at the dinner table not only improves nutrition, but increases early child vocabulary, helps academic performance, and decreases many high-risk adolescent behaviors. Planning meals, shopping, and preparing food together allows everyone to express their preferences, learn essential cooking skills, and have fun. When children participate in growing, purchasing, or preparing food, they are more likely to eat that food. Families tend to eat healthier at home; as home cooking increases, obesity decreases. Family meals also provide a chance for parents to model healthy eating behaviors and attitudes to their children.
These habits create a foundation for healthful eating from the earliest age. Regardless of where a family is on their wellness path, making small, incremental changes that incorporate more real, whole foods into the diet benefits child and parent alike.