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.
When children are very young, they typically eat what you give them and stop when they are full. As they get older, this easy approach to meals doesn't always last. So how do you get kids to choose healthy foods without constant nagging?
"There is no magic trick to getting kids to eat healthy food," says Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD. But that's no reason to give up. Instead, rethink everything about meals, including how they look. After all, the way food is presented can have a profound effect on acceptance.
Location, Location, Location
In real estate, location is just about everything when it comes to selling property. The same principle can apply to helping kids change their food choices for the better, according to Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. Wansink is helping transform lunchrooms by changing how healthy foods are offered to schoolchildren. For example, Wansink's research has found that placing a bowl of attractive fruit under good lighting increased fruit sales at school. If it works in a cafeteria, there's good reason to believe that offering beautiful fresh fruit at home would increase a child's interest there, too.
Shopping for nutritious ingredients for great-tasting meals and snacks is a must for presenting healthful foods to children. Fill your refrigerator, freezer and cupboards with fresh or canned fruit in its own juice, fresh and frozen vegetables, whole-grain breads, cereals and pasta, and staples such as eggs, low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese. Once you have all this great food, make sure your family knows it is there and for the taking. "Carefully place healthy foods in cabinets and the fridge to make them easily accessible," Jacobsen says.
Young children prefer small foods and may lose interest when served larger portions of healthy foods. Serve bite-size cubes of cheese and chicken, small melon balls or tiny globes of mozzarella cheese as part of snacks or meals. Bake whole-grain mini-muffins, and prepare smaller pizzas by using a whole-grain English muffin for a crust.
Some children thrill at the sight of their food cut up into a different shape every day. If your child doesn't like traditional sandwiches, try whole-grain wraps sliced into rounds. These portions are perfect for pint-sized hands. Or, instead of presenting a snack of a glass of milk with fruit, blend the two together for a colorful, nutritious smoothie. Looking for another snack idea? Kids love fruit and vegetable kebabs, which pair well with sweet or savory yogurt dip.
Mix It Up
"While it's nice to be able to make food into fun shapes, it is certainly not a necessity," Jacobsen says. "The key is to expose children to a variety of foods and textures to keep their interest in healthy food." Children may turn up their nose at a monotone meal of chicken, mashed potatoes, regular pasta and a banana, so entice them with whole-grain pasta, crunchy green beans and melon balls.
Do As You Say
Remember, the most important tip for getting kids to eat healthy food starts with you. All the food styling in the world won't help kids form these healthy habits unless you follow suit. Parents are the biggest influence on children's eating habits, so you need to eat right, too!