By Melissa Powell
Confusion about child nutrition begins early, and conversations about breastfeeding and organic milk can be as polarizing as vaccines and spanking.
As a registered dietitian, former lactation consultant and employee of the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) Program, and the mother of a 5-year-old picky eater—encouraging and empowering young parents to raise healthy children is one of my greatest privileges.
The vast majority of parents want nothing more than to provide nutritious meals for their children, yet the cards seem stacked against us as Americans.
The standard American diet makes calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods and beverages far more accessible and cost-efficient than whole foods (Grotto & Zied, 2010). And, for those of us living in the southeast, the challenges are even greater.
In fact, a college friend moving from California to Mississippi was warned by her pediatrician about the poor food quality and obesity rates in this region.
Thankfully, the solution to the problem isn’t complicated—whole, fresh, real foods.
My knowledge as a dietitian has influenced my parenting in lots of ways, and I’ve listed a few here in hopes you find them helpful:
Tip 1: Take advantage of your child’s sense of wonder and curiosity. Garden, shop and cook with them. Even let them make some decisions when it comes to the menu. I keep plastic dishes, cheap herbs/spices and boiled eggs in the kitchen so my son can create dishes of his own or peel the egg, while I cook dinner.
Tip 2: Everyone in the family should enjoy the same meal. Try not to accommodate pickiness. Offer one new food at a time and offer new foods with foods you know your child will eat. Last night we had lentil soup—a new food for my son. In addition to the soup, I gave him some easy side options that I knew he would enjoy, like applesauce and bread.
Tip 3: Children should try all foods offered, but should not be forced to clean their plate. The rule at our house is you must try a bite of everything. Right now the 5-year-old eats five bites. That’s one bite for every year. My husband is really good about asking him to tell us which food he likes most and why he doesn’t like something else. This seems to help us focus on learning about different foods, rather than focusing on my son’s picky eating.
Tip 4: Only purchase foods that you want your child(ren) to eat. If you don’t spend your money on it, it won’t be in the house and your family won’t be tempted. I find I worry less about what my child eats outside the home when I provide whole, fresh foods at home.
Tip 5: Teach children to listen to their bodies. No one else will teach your child about moderation. It’s up to you. If my son says he’s hungry, I offer fruits or vegetables. If that doesn’t appeal to him, then he must not be too hungry and can wait until the next meal. If he over indulges at a birthday party and complains about a belly ache, we talk about the links between the food we eat and how we feel, without shaming or policing him. We trick-or-treat, but we don’t keep the candy in our house from Halloween through Valentine’s Day. Once a holiday is over, the candy goes away. I know the time is quickly approaching when he will be making his own food choices, so I want to give him the tools he needs to make healthy decisions.
Tip 6: Teach traditions and manners. Meals should be peaceful and enjoyable for every member of the family. Our family tradition is to light a candle and read a devotion. We love Thoughts that Make Your Heart Sing at our house. I find this calms my son and signals a change in his activity level. He has grown to love this time each night. If someone is misbehaving at the table, they are asked to leave, then welcomed back when behavior improves. We eat as if my grandmother was at the table with us, where fun and laughter reign but manners are a must. Stay seated, napkin in your lap, inside voice, no phones/TV, etc. Because we practice this at home, eating out or at someone else’s house is no problem.
I’ll also share some resources for recipes and other ways of focusing on healthy eating habits for the whole family:
- 85 Snack Ideas for Kids (And Adults)
- Cooking with Kids
- Raise Healthy Eaters: Happy Table, Healthy Family
Grotto, D., & Zied, E. (2010). The standard American diet and its relationship to the health status of Americans. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25(6), 603-612.
Melissa Powell Contact
Melissa is a registered dietitian and dietetics lecturer in the Health and Human Performance Department at UT Chattanooga. She and her husband, Chris, are the proud parents of a playful son, Craig. She enjoys time with her church family, taming her lab mutts–Mabel and Moses—wine with neighbors and traveling south for a beach vacation or visit with her nieces. Her favorite subjects are faith, food, farming, family, friends and football. She earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Samford University and a master’s degree in health education from UT Chattanooga.