March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
A child's life is full of firsts. First steps, first words, first tooth and for parents who enjoy eating out we can add a child's first meals at a restaurant. For preschoolers, ages 3 to 5, the meals may be small but there are big lessons to learn about lifelong healthy dining habits.
Good Things in Small Packages
Children are not just small adults especially when it comes to nutrition. Every bite should deliver healthy nutrients for growing bodies and minds. Filling up on chips before the "real food" arrives is a bad habit for two reasons: they'll often consume too many calories and they won’t have room for the healthy items.
Depending on age of the preschooler – whether they need mashed bananas or are fine with finger foods – ask for cut up fruit while you enjoy an appetizer. It will keep them occupied and contribute to the one cup of fruit they need per day.
Be a Cut Up
To prevent choking, cut grapes and other solid foods, such as meat, poultry and hot dogs, into tiny bites.
Teach kids to slow down and savor flavors. Parents are powerful role models so set a good example by setting a relaxed pace. Dining out with small children helps encourage a healthy curiosity about food and how to behave at the table.
The old stand-by plate of pasta is a toddler favorite. Penne, macaroni or shells are easiest for small children to maneuver on to a spoon. Ask for pasta with a little olive oil or marinara sauce rather than coated in melted butter or cheese sauces.
Simple is Best
Often side dishes, even steamed vegetables, are highly seasoned. Request that a child's vegetables be made without added salt. Order a plain baked potato or sweet potato, mash and season lightly at the table.
Beware the Hot Stuff
Kids move fast. Be aware that hot foods can hurt tiny mouths and then oh, the tears! Avoid spicy foods, too. It's always best if you taste it first.
Don't Be Afraid to Try It
Some kids are more adventurous than others but, it's important to encourage tasting new foods when dining out. The more variety in the diet, the more nutrients provided.
Learn to Share
Whether its splitting a platter of pasta for the whole family to sample or ordering one slice of cheesecake with four forks; dining out teaches proper portion control when you share.
Skip the Sodas
Dining out used to be a special occasion so soda was an OK treat. But, since most kids dine out multiple times per week think about the drinks. Encourage fat-free milk, plain water or make your own special "soda" by mixing equal parts fruit juice and sparkling water.