Healthy eating means eating a variety of foods from all food groups. It means choosing fewer foods that have lots of fats and sugar. But it does not mean that your child cannot eat desserts or other treats now and then.
With a little planning, you can create a structure that gives your child (and you) the freedom to make healthy eating choices. Think of this as planning not just for the kids but for everyone in your family.
Getting started with your young child
- At meals, serve milk. (Children under 12 months of age should not drink cow's milk.) Most children need whole milk between 1 and 2 years of age. But your doctor may recommend 2% milk if your child is overweight or if there is a family history of obesity, high blood pressure, or heart disease. Over the age of 2, serve fat-free or low-fat milk.
- When trying new foods at a meal, be sure to also include a food that your child likes. Don't be discouraged if it takes several tries before your child actually eats a new food. It may take as many as 15 times or more before your child will try a new food.
- Juice does not have the valuable fiber that whole fruit has. Unless the label says the drink has only 100% juice, beware that many fruit drinks are just water, a little juice flavoring, and a lot of added sugar. If you must give juice, water it down. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises no more than 4 fl oz (120 mL) to 6 fl oz (180 mL) of 100% fruit juice a day for children 1 to 6 years old.2 This means ½ cup to ¾ cup. Juice isn't recommended for babies 0 to 6 months.
Planning meals and snacks
- Set up a regular snack and meal schedule. Kids need to eat at least every 3 to 4 hours. Most children do well with three meals and two or three snacks a day.
- Eat meals together as a family as often as possible.
- Start with small, easy-to-achieve changes, such as offering more fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks.
- Look at your portion sizes . Remember that younger children may eat smaller amounts than adults. Although paying attention to portion sizes is important (especially of less nutritious foods), it is up to your child to decide how much food he or she needs to eat at a meal to feel full.
- Cut down on soda pop and other high-sugar drinks. Serve water to quench thirst. You can encourage your child to drink more water and fewer sugar-sweetened drinks by keeping cold water on hand in the refrigerator.
- Consider meeting with a registered dietitian for help with meal and snack planning (nutritional counseling).
- Even though your child may not eat the food, it is important to keep serving it so that your child can see other family members enjoying it. Also, your child should not think that meals are going to be planned only around his or her food preferences. Remember, you are in charge of deciding which foods are served at meal and snacks.
If you are feeling out of control over your own eating habits or weight, your child may be learning some poor eating habits from you. See a registered dietitian, your doctor, or a mental health professional experienced with eating problems, if needed. For more information, see the topics Healthy Eating and Weight Management.
Encouraging healthy choices
Help your child learn to make healthy food and lifestyle choices by following these steps:
- Be a good role model. Practice the eating and exercise habits you'd like your children to have. Your example is your child's most powerful learning tool.
- Increase active time. Make physical activity a part of your family's daily life. Set limits on your child's daily TV and computer time to no more than 2 hours a day. Have your child take breaks from computer, cell phone, and TV use and be active instead. It's best for children younger than 2 to not watch TV, watch movies, or play games on a screen.
- Eat breakfast. Having breakfast with your child can help start a lifelong healthy habit.
- Involve your child in meal planning and grocery shopping. When your child is old enough, teach him or her about food preparation, cooking and food safety and, later, how to use food label information . While giving your child a role in decision making, remember that you have the final say in food planning.
- Involve your child in cooking. Children enjoy helping out, and they learn easily with hands-on experience. They can also use other skills, such as math, when counting or measuring ingredients.