Nutrition is one of the most important factors in a child’s health. About one in five children are obese in the United States, and one of the biggest culprits is empty calories and processed foods.
A lot of parents don’t know what to do. How do they get a picky eater to approach green beans? What kinds of foods should their kids be eating in the first place? How much is too much food, or too little?
The importance of early childhood nutrition
It has been said that the health of a nation depends, in part, on early childhood nutrition. Children who don’t get the right nutrients can have permanently damaged health and futures, including predispositions to illness and disease, decreased brain function, and a lower earning potential, just to name a few.
For the first time in generations, the American life expectancy is decreasing. Many doctors and scientists are looking towards preventable causes – like nutrition and physical health – as an explanation, and a solution.
The best way to support a child’s physical and mental growth is to feed them healthy, balanced diets that include protein, vitamins, iron, healthy fats, and balanced carbohydrates. Each developing area of the brain needs different fuel to grow and create connectivity and complexity. That’s why variety is imperative!
What does a healthy diet look like?
A healthy diet for children can be summarized relatively simply:
1. Whole foods, and
2. Wide variety.
When we think of “kids’” foods, we imagine bland, basic things – cereal, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chicken nuggets, and a few pieces of broccoli. We often limit a child’s ability to develop an expansive palate because we don’t think it’s possible. But that simply isn’t true!
In Vietnam, a common breakfast for kids is Pho – a noodle soup with rich broth, vegetables, and possibly an egg on top. In Tokyo, and child might eat soybeans, miso soup, grilled salmon, and pickled cucumbers for breakfast. Children in India dig into curries full of aromatic spices and herbs.
The possibilities are only limited by what you feed them!
We create picky eaters
Food preferences are almost always learned behaviors. We learn what to eat based on what’s modeled for us and what’s normalized in our households.
It’s common for children to dislike a new food. Evolutionarily, humans had to be cautious of new things until they knew something was safe to consume. Just because a child rejects something upon first try doesn’t mean they’re only going to enjoy a diet of white bread.
Varied palates are trained, and it starts young. Through repeated exposure and a normalized culture in home, you can boost your child’s nutrition while also preparing them to be adventurous eaters for the rest of their lives. Not to mention giving them their best chance at health and happiness in the process!
5 tips for boosting nutrition
1. Get your child involved
Take your child shopping and let them select the fruits and vegetables. Have them help you wash the vegetables. Share what you’re doing as you cook, and “deconstruct” the meal together. What goes in it? How do you know how much to add?
Children are naturally curious, and they love routine. If you invite them into the routine of cooking and invite them into the process, they’ll be more likely to engage with new, healthy foods rather than reject them on sight.
2. Don’t insult your food
Part of increasing the variety of foods your child eats involves changing the culture in your home. This includes a changed mentality. If your child doesn’t like a food and they insult it, it perpetuates the mindset that some foods are “yummy” and others are “gross.”
Instead, encourage your child to take small bites of something new. Celebrate their willingness to “taste test.” Don’t call them “picky” but “adventurous,” and find different ways they can describe a food they don’t like instead of calling it “gross.”
3. Don’t offer dessert as a reward
Besides the fact that sugar inherently tastes good to our palates, if we learn emotional associates with “treats” and “rewards,” we’re more likely to want them and less likely to desire nutritious foods. Don’t make dessert a reward for eating vegetables. It’s harder for your child to have a positive relationship with vegetables, because they merely become a means to an end.
Similarly, it’s tempting to express affection through treats. This also creates an associate between our love and sugar. Instead, use praise, attention, or special experiences to express your abundant love. Leave food out of it – we have enough obstacles to overcome as it is!
4. Find creative ways to incorporate vegetables
Even most adults don’t want to eat plain pieces of broccoli, and there are so many more interesting ways to consume vegetables. Add them to sauces, creamy curries, soups, with grains, and more. Shredding them is a great way to add vegetables to meatloaf or other baked items.
Enhance the flavor of your vegetables by adding spices or herbs, or incorporating them into meals rather than consuming them alone. The more interesting the vegetable, the more likely they’ll appeal to your little one.
5. Start them young!
The sooner your child’s palate can explore a wide range of flavors, the better! Pregnancy is also a great place to start – when your child is born, they’re more familiar with foods their mother consumed.
Remember, a great way to boost your child’s nutrition is to feed them healthy, varied foods. And the best way to get them to eat it is to raise adventurous, bold eaters!
From our home to yours,
David and Danny, fathers and founders, Kekoa Foods