How to Get Your Kids to Eat Healthy Foods

By August 18, 2020 Weight Loss

Wellness Coach Shaun Miskelly has discussed childhood obesity recently on the blog. We’d like to continue that conversation by sharing ways you can help your child eat healthier foods. If you have a child struggling with childhood obesity or you just want to make better food choices at home, Katie Wells shares these great tips on Wellness Mama. You can put these into practice today!

At the rates kids grow, what we feed them matters greatly to their physical, mental, and emotional health. (Not mention their behavior.)

What to feed children is a somewhat controversial topic and a point of frustration for a lot of parents. This is one of the areas I used to get the most questions when I did nutritional consulting, and a hotly debated issue among moms.

Over the years my husband and I have developed our own food guidelines that we follow at our house, and it’s definitely helped. I’ll share what’s worked (and what hasn’t) in hopes it helps with any picky eaters at your house!

My feelings run high on this topic, so grab a cup of (organic, herbal) tea, this is going to be a long one…

Junk Food, Junk Food Everywhere …

It’s quite obvious, with a quick stroll down the perilous middle aisles of any grocery store, that a lot of food marketing targets children. (After all, silly rabbit, “Trix are for kids!”)

Not so subtle TV commercials and even blatant bribe marketing (Happy Meal toys) seek to educate our kids about nutrition. Call me old fashioned, but I’m not content to let a clown with big red shoes teach my kids what good food looks like. (And I don’t care if it does come with milk and apple slices, Ronald!)

It is also no secret that obesity and Type 2 diabetes rates are skyrocketing in kids and appearing at younger and younger ages… Could there be a connection? (hint: yes!)

While most parents (I hope) agree that basic foods like healthy proteins and green veggies are important staples for the little ones, the issue of child nutrition is hardly a clear cut one anymore. With soccer games to play, choir practices to attend, and a social schedule that would have made me dizzy at their ages, most kids these days (and moms!) just aren’t home at meal times much. This rapidly paced lifestyle makes it easier to justify quick food, even if it is devoid of nutrients.

Convenient portable options like squeeze baby food pouches (yes, there are actually real-food baby food brands that make these now, hallelujah!) can help, but what about older kids? How can we guide their food choices even when they’re older?

I have some ideas…

Don’t Offer Food as a Reward

Another factor that I have noticed with many children is the connection to food as a type of reward. From a young age we reward birthdays with sweets, school achievements with meals out, good deeds with ice cream, and even healthy eating with dessert (if you eat all 3 of your peas, you can have a piece of cake…)

Couple the above factors with the fact that most kids, once they escape the nutrient-devoid school lunches and finally get home at night, are too tired to get the benefits of going outside and play or chase a ball around for fun, and instead curl up in front of the TV or video games with a snack.

With the world against her, what is a health-conscious mom to do? This is a question I struggled with myself for a long time before finally reaching family peace! Before I get to the “how,” let’s talk about the “what” to eat!

Teach Them to Recognize Real Food

With the hubbub of daily life, it is easy to forget just how important our kids’ nutrition is. Like I said, while most parents agree on the benefits of veggies and healthy proteins, it is all the other things that seem to cause the debate. Is dairy ok? Should they drink fruit juice? If so, how much? Is sugar OK in moderation?

While there is certainly plenty of room for parental choice in a child’s diet, there are a few core food groups to build around (I’ll give you a hint … it doesn’t look like the regular food pyramid!).

The good news is, the basic rule of what to feed kids is simple:

The most basic way to test if a child should be eating a given substance is to determine if it is actually a food or not.

Any “food” that can sit on a shelf and not decompose for a year is likely not fit for consumption. (Try that with a salad and see what happens!) This “non-food” list would also include anything containing hydrogenated oils (peanut, soy, cottonseed, vegetable, canola, etc), anything containing MSG, anything containing high fructose corn syrup, anything containing artificial sweeteners, and anything containing processed grains.

This basically knocks out all the fast food, microwaveable food, “food” bars, and most drinks besides water.

So, what’s left? Plenty!

Show Them a Different Food Pyramid

If your head is swimming with the idea of all the things you shouldn’t feed your kids… don’t worry, the list of great foods is a tasty one!

The following foods are excellent, necessary sources of nutrition that every child should consume on a regular basis. If yours aren’t chomping down the Brussels sprouts just yet, stay with me… I’ve learned a few things (with lots of mistakes and experiments) raising six kids, and I’ll share what worked for their six (very different!) personalities.

1. Good Sources of Protein

Proteins (amino acids) are used in every function in the body and are absolutely vital for all of us, especially kids as they are still forming bones and muscles.

Healthy meats, especially, offer complete proteins that children desperately need for proper growth (the tofu just won’t cut it here). I’ve heard all too many parents state that their kids “don’t like red meat” and then have their kids test positive for a B-12 deficiency. So what are healthy meats?

Kids need real, untreated, chemical-free sources of protein, and chicken nuggets just won’t do! Regular, daily consumption of pure, organic beef, chicken, turkey, and eggs will ensure that kids’ protein needs are being met. Most kids will eat healthy meats willingly once they have tried well-prepared sources. (Check out some recipes here).

Proteins to Try

  • grass-fed beef
  • free-range chicken and other poultry
  • organic organ meats
  • free range eggs
  • wild caught fish
  • wild game
  • some luncheon meats and bacon are ok if you can find the nitrate/nitrite-free varieties

Proteins to Avoid

  • processed meats
  • chicken nuggets
  • deli meats (with nitrates)
  • meats that are served with processed foods (hamburgers, pizza, etc.)
  • any non-meats like soy nuggets
  • commercially raised beef, poultry, or fish

2. Veggies and Fruits

Maybe you noticed I said those in a reverse order than that which you are used to (“eat fruits and veggies!”). This was intentional.

Studies show that Americans eat much more fruit than veggies, a trend we could stand to reverse. While fruits are wonderful and have their place, veggies are equally (or more) important, and have much less sugar.

Even though fruits contain natural sugar, fructose in large amounts (even from fruit) can be damaging. Besides this, kids will usually choose fruit over veggies if given the choice, and many parents are happy to make this concession as long as the kids are “eating fruits and veggies.”

The top-consumed veggies among Americans are potatoes and tomatoes (french fries and ketchup, anyone?). In addition, many of the “vegetables” on kids’ plates are not really vegetables at all: corn (a grain), potatoes (a tuber, high in carbs and low in nutrition compared to other veggies), and peas (a legume).

Most kids receive a majority of their “vegetable” intake from tomato-based products like ketchup or pasta sauce. Despite the widely acknowledged fact that veggies and fruits reduce risk of almost every disease, we still aren’t eating them! The good news? As parents, we have much more influence than we think in our kids’ diets (more on that in a minute)!

Veggies and Fruits to Eat (Tons Of!):

  • organic leafy greens (spinach, lettuce, mixed greens, kale, chard, turnip, mustard, etc.)
  • colorful fruits and veggies (peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, squashes, carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, cucumbers, avocado, berries, bananas, grapes, etc.)
  • unusual fruits and veggies (leeks, fennel, okra, olives, artichokes, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, sea veggies, beets, parsnips, radishes, asparagus, kohlrabi, etc.)

Veggies and Fruits for Treats

Call me crazy (and people have) but most fruits, for my kids, are natural treats. While berries are in season, they feast with reckless abandon, but during most of the year, veggies come first and fruits are the “dessert.” After some adjustment, kids really do learn to love the natural sweetness in fruit, even over processed sugar.

The higher sugar content fruits to eat in moderation are: apples, oranges/other citrus, melons, mango, papaya (organic, or its GMO), pears, pomegranates, peaches and the like. Dried fruits (prunes, raisins, dates, dried cranberries, etc) are also higher in sugar and are usually given as treats in the form of natural energy bars.

Veggies and Fruits to Avoid

Fried ones like french fries, potato chips, onion rings, and other non-foods, “veggie” chips, “fruit” roll-ups and “fruit” snacks, fruit juices (even the no-sugar-added types as they all act as pure sugar in the body and don’t compare to the nutrients in real fruit), any “fruit” or “vegetable” product that has ingredients besides fruit on the label.

Try homemade recipes like homemade gummies or real fruit roll-upsif your kids are missing these foods.

3. Healthy Fats

Sadly, the low-fat trend in America is being passed on to kids also. We tend to surf the extremes, letting them eat fast food or junk food but giving them “healthy” low-fat alternatives at other times.

While some parents, with the best of intentions, restrict fat in their kid’s diets to prevent weight gain, a restricted fat diet in kids can lead to health problems, vitamin deficiency, and ADHD. Dietary fats carry the necessary vitamins A,D,E and K into tissue and allow for uptake. Breast milk, considered the most complete food for babies and toddlers is over 50% total fat and 40-50% saturated fat. It seems odd to me that children would suddenly go from a dietary need for this much fat to a much smaller need for dietary fat.

A lack of necessary dietary fats, especially saturated fats, can cause reduction in the myelin sheath that coat kids’ brain cells, causing uncontrolled or rapid fire impulses in the brain, which presents as ADD or ADHD. It will be a paradigm shift for many of our generation to stop demonizing fats, but for our kids’ sakes, we need to make this jump.

Kids under 14 especially need adequate amounts of fat (including saturated fat) and this intake should comprise 30% of their total diet. Be careful, of course, in choosing healthy fats: avoid trans fats and engineered fats like vegetable oils, hydrogenated oils, and shortening.

Great Sources of Dietary Fat:

  • coconut (raw, or as oil, shredded, flour, milk, butter … all coconut is great)
  • avocados, olives/olive oil
  • butter/ghee (as long as organic/grass-fed)
  • eggs
  • fish
  • organ meat
  • wild game
  • nuts and seeds

I also recommend supplementing omega-3s and vitamin D.

Sources of Dietary Fat to Avoid

  • polyunsaturated oils (liquid at room temp like peanut, soy, canola, vegetable, etc.)
  • hydrogenated oils
  • shortening, trans fats, and any other engineered forms of oil or fat (p.s. These are the oils and fats used at restaurants and in most processed foods.)

Teach Them What They Don’t Need

Anyone new to the blog may be wondering when I will mention the “healthy whole grains” and dairy products. The truth is, you don’t need them and neither do your children.

Particularly in processed or pasteurized forms, these two “food” groups are responsible for a lot of childhood allergies and are just not the superior nutrition sources that they are made out to be. Studies (and personal experience) prove that kids who can’t eat either of these sources due to allergies receive just as much (or more) nutrients as those who eat these regularly.

Why Grains Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

The water-soluble proteins like gluten and lectin present in processed grains can do damage to the digestive system over time, and these particles can then pass through the small intestine and move into the blood stream where they are seen as a pathogen. The body creates an immune response and an allergy is born. (Not to mention you would basically have feces floating in your bloodstream!)

The good news here is that in many cases, and especially in children, the body is very capable of healing itself if given real food!

Even those who recommend intake of “healthy whole grains” for “fiber and nutrients” will acknowledge that meats, veggies, fruits and healthy fats have a much higher nutrient profile. Grains should be a small part of a child’s diet. And if you do eat grains, stick to actual whole grains (rice, oats, etc) or other starches like quinoa (technically a seed).

Dare You Dairy?

The issue of dairy in the diet can be an even more controversial one! While we don’t do much dairy, and only in raw, unpasteurized form from an organic farmer, dairy is a staple in many children’s diets at the recommendation of their doctors.

Statistically, kids who go without the dairy by choice or by allergy still receive adequate calcium and other nutrients. However, dairy is the main source of dietary fat for many children. In some cases, even though dairy isn’t necessary, until this fat is replaced with more healthy sources (see above), removing all dairy can do more harm than good.

This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

We believe in making healthy, lifelong changes to your daily eating and exercise patterns. Physician’s Weight Control & Wellness’s programs are different from other weight loss programs in that they are specifically constructed by bariatric specialists to meet each patient’s individual needs based on their body chemistry, lifestyle, and weight loss goals. Our individualized programs focus on providing positive alternatives to unhealthy habits and targeting foods that provide your body with the specific nutrients it needs for optimal energy and fat metabolism. Practical exercise and hydration are also implemented into our overall program.

We encourage you to become a part of our successful weight loss program. We offer 50 years of safety, experience, knowledge, and expertise found nowhere else!

Contact us with any questions about Physician’s Weight Control & Wellness Center and how we can help you in your journey to better health.

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