Being a parent, I know how it works. We want to do everything we can for our kids. And what does that mean for their eating? Are there child nutrition guidelines? All of a sudden, they’re moving on from breastfeeding or formula and I need to find healthy toddler meals. Or, as they grow, they eat erratically and how can I know if they’re missing out on some key nutrient?
Bottom line: What is healthy food for kids? And how can I be the best possible parent with regard to their nutrition? Of course there’s no easy answer to the question of nutrition for kids. But I do have some thoughts to share. I mostly hear one of two things from parents I work with. “Lauren, they won’t eat their veggies” or “Lauren, they only eat junk food.” So here’s my two cents:
“Good foods” and “bad foods”
Try to stay away from labeling foods as good or bad. Move away from the term “junk food” and instead maybe try “snack food” if you must or (even better) just “food,” because that’s what it is. If we send messages through words or tone that foods are either good or bad, it can lead to a hyper-focus on that food. This hyperfocus can trigger overeating or binging when it’s available — or establishing a restrictive relationship with food in general. In both scenarios, a distrust of the body and its natural proclivities toward food can take root.
The child may eat it just to get the approval of, or rebel against an authority figure, namely, you. It also introduces a kind of morality into food choices, which is a slippery slope. Instead, offer a variety of foods. And yes, this means snack foods also! Making all foods just “food” will allow that hyper-focus to dissipate and an ease with food can grow.
There’s one thing that keeps coming up again and again as a good thing all around. And that’s mealtime. However you can swing it, it’s a special time that’s rooted in survival and literally recharging. And then there’s this other dimension to it that can be enjoyable and bonding, provide a chance to talk and share ideas — and it’s also a good way to lay the groundwork for a healthy relationship with food.
I like how registered dietitian and child feeding and eating expert Ellyn Satter puts it in her Division of Responsibility Model: it is the parents’ job to decide what, when, and where to eat. Children are in charge of how much and whether they will eat at all.
The nice thing about a baby’s nutrition needs is that, for the most part, what they eat in the first few months of life is pretty simple. It either comes out of a breast or a bottle and that’s that. Parents come face-to-face with their child’s nutrition when they venture into the next phase. “Healthy toddler meals” is an often-searched phrase — and I picture it being entered frantically by exhausted, terrified parents in the early morning hours, convinced everyone knows except them. If that’s you, don’t panic. Whether you’re looking for “healthy toddler meals” or ideas for your older kids, now is always a good time to gather information and help define what delicious and satisfying means for your family at mealtime. Every family is different and you know your family best. What do you enjoy? What do the kids enjoy? How can you enjoy this time together?
If you’re hungry for some kid-friendly ideas, here’s a link to check out. I say resist the temptation to “dumb down” the family meals. While a good hot dog is great and pancakes with little faces on them are cute, not every meal needs to be catered directly to junior. You’ll be amazed that your favorite family meals can and will be eaten by kids when that’s all there is to eat and they’re hungry. The most important part: spending quality time together and enjoying a meal as a family.