March 9, 2015

Healthy eaters are made, not born

Today people of all ages are bombarded with messaging about food, fitness and health. This includes America's youngest citizens — children.

Add on the complexity of toddlerhood and parents face several challenges to raise a healthy eater. Feeding a toddler is much different than feeding a young infant for several reasons:

  • Babies are growing rapidly and their appetites match their growth. Growth slows after one year and therefore so does a child's appetite.

  • Infants often eat about every 4 hours — like clockwork. All children benefit from a schedule but often are not receptive at mealtime.

  • Babies are not picky eaters, but the most parents would describe their two-year-old in this manner. Pickiness is a normal stage of growth as a child explores and learns how to exercise their independence.

Additionally, infants are unaware of food marketing, but are vulnerable to the tempting tastes of processed foods. Healthy eaters are made and, unfortunately, not born. Therefore, it is essential to set your child up for success by choosing fresh foods over pre-packaged "kid-friendly foods." The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has made healthy eating a top priority and issues a recent policy statement recommending that pediatricians help to equip families and schools with the tools to provide a healthful diet to children. This policy also encourages families and schools to avoid highly processed foods, which would include the host of kid-friendly foods. A supporting AAP study found that more than half of the ready-to-serve toddler foods did not meet their nutrition recommendations.

In fact:

  • 40% of the mixed grains and fruit items and nearly 90% of the dry fruit-based snacks had more than 35% of their calories from added sugar.

  • About 70% of the toddler dinners were high in sodium, or salt.

What's a parent to do? Try the AAP's Five-Step Approach with these quick tips for providing healthful food in a hurry:

  1. First, trust your child. They will eat when they are hungry. Caregivers manage the "what" and "when" and leave the "how much" to the child.

  2. Save your breath. Young children are literal, or black-and-white thinkers. They often learn best by doing, so invite them into the meal planning and preparation process. Hang a picture of the MyPlate diagram and invite your child to select at least three food groups for each meal and two food groups for a snack.

  3. Ditch highly processed grains, fruit and vegetables and go for the real thing. Serve fresh fruit cut into fun shapes using cookie cutters and make trying new vegetables a family occasion.

  4. Serve up fresh foods with tasty, low-salt, dips such as homemade salsa, hummus, and ranch or dill-flavored Greek yogurt dip.

  5. Have fun with flavor. Say goodbye to the saltshaker and added sugar and hello to an assortment of herbs and spices. Try cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg for sweet items and Italian herbs, pepper, or curry powder for more savory items.

  6. Offer age-appropriate portions. Use a child-size plate (six-inches in diameter or less) and help them to divide of their food groups just like the MyPlate image.

Health professionals, including registered dietitians, recognize what parents and caregivers are up against in today's food environment. Researchers have shown us that health starts at home, so UW Health's team is here to help equip and empower you and your family.