The USDA's MyPlate program is designed to make balanced eating easy to visualize and apply to everyday life. Serving kids meals and snacks according to these guidelines provides the fuel they need to thrive — but how are you actually supposed to get them to eat it? Try these RDN-approved tips to make any meal a MyPlate superstar!
Fruits and Vegetables
Marina Chaparro, MPH, RDN, LD, CDE, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says getting kids involved in the kitchen will increase their likelihood of eating fruits and vegetables. "Kids are experimental learners and love to get messy," she says. "Children learn by doing things and by touching, smelling and feeling. Get your kids involved in the kitchen at an early age so they develop a positive and healthy relationship with food later in life. Assign them age-appropriate tasks."
Use the color of fruits and vegetables to your advantage and play with fun shapes if that works in your family. At home, offer an assortment of veggies and consider serving them in a dish your kid loves. Or, serve veggies or a salad as an appetizer, before dishing out the entree. Don't forget to model healthy habits by also eating a variety of fruits and vegetables daily.
What is a lean protein? This category includes chicken, turkey, lean beef, fish and vegetarian proteins such as beans and tofu. When it comes to picky eaters, Chaparro encourages parents to start slow. "Protein can be a difficult food for children to eat because of the chewy consistency and strong flavor," she says. "Be persistent and start slow. If they like chicken nuggets, then consider transitioning to salmon nuggets. Pair accepted foods with other foods similar in color and consistency. Remember, there are plant-based protein foods you can include that might be easier for your child to accept. Consider nuts or nut butters as part of snacks or breakfast, or include beans and tofu as alternatives for meat."
Whole grains contribute fiber to the diet and also provide iron, B vitamins and other important nutrients kids need. To get your kids to eat more whole grains, serve more. If they're hesitant, start slow and mix it up — add options such as whole-wheat bread, pasta and brown rice to what they're used to eating. If your child cannot eat gluten, try a gluten-free whole-grain option such as quinoa, brown rice or millet.
Fat is an important source of calories that support infants' and toddlers' growth and should not be restricted. Two fatty acids — linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid — are essential for your child's growth and brain development. Our bodies don't make these acids, so we must get them from food. Kids also need some fat from food to help their bodies absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. Healthy sources of fat include avocado, nut butter, olives, olive oil and canola oil. Whole eggs and dairy products are other kid-friendly sources of dietary fat.
And a Drink on the Side
Get kids used to making water their main beverage by serving it at each meal. Or, try other healthy choices such as fat-free or low-fat milk, or an unsweetened non-dairy beverage. Limit sugary beverages and fruit juice, and, for older kids who want a bubbly beverage, offer seltzer water instead of soda.
However you incorporate MyPlate suggestions into your kids' meals, plan to do it for yourself! "Healthy eating habits start at home," says Chaparro. "Whether they realize it or not, parents are their children's first nutrition teachers. Kids learn by example and they want to imitate parents. What parents eat will directly affect what a child eats. Be a good role model and create healthy eating habits for the entire family."