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Healthy Meal Planning for Children

How can I get my children to eat healthy foods?

Many parents are realizing that rushed schedules and too many dinners from fast food restaurants are affecting the way their children eat and see foods. The best way to get your kids to eat well is to be a role model and to get them involved in meal planning. Eating healthy is always a family affair. Whether your children are very young and you are looking to start them out "right" or they are already in the habit of eating too many high fat, high sugar foods, you can use these tips to help your family eat healthy meals.

Where do I start?

Children should be offered a variety of foods from all food groups including whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat or skim dairy products, lean meats, fish, poultry, and beans. A good rule of thumb in choosing the healthiest versions of these foods is "the less processed, the better." Processed foods are usually prepackaged foods like crackers, cookies, instant noodle and rice mixes, sugary cereals, and breads made with white flour.

  • Use the ChooseMyPlate method to teach your kids how to eat a balance of healthy foods in the right amounts. The ChooseMyPlate method divides the plate into 4 food groups: fruit, vegetable, grains, and protein. You can use this plate to choose foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Simply fill half of a 9-inch plate with fruits and vegetables. The other half of the plate should be split between starches (such as whole grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes) and lean proteins, like lean meat, beans, and peas. A cup of low-fat or skim milk or yogurt on the side is ok.
  • Go shopping. See what's in your cupboards. If you usually buy high-fat, high-sugar snacks, sodas, sugary fruit drinks, and baked goods, you'll need to change your shopping habits. Children get used to having these foods around and will choose them over fresh fruits, yogurt, or other healthy snacks. Writing out a shopping list really helps. Let your kids help write the "new" list.
  • Change cereals. Switch from high-sugar cereals to those that are only lightly sweetened and are high in fiber. If your children really complain, dress them up with fresh fruit or allowing a "mix." A mix is a healthy cereal with a small handful of sweet cereal on top.
  • Serve more whole grain products. At least half of the grain products your children eat should come from whole grains. Whole grains include whole wheat, whole oats, whole-grain corn, brown rice, and whole grain barley.
  • Serve low-fat milk. If your children are over 2 years of age, switch to low-fat or skim dairy products. Encourage 2 to 3 servings a day. Serving cold cereal or making oatmeal with milk can add an additional serving of milk for those children that don't care for drinking milk. Give your child water and low-fat milk more often than juice. While 100% juice is nutritious, it is also very high in calories and can be a problem for children at risk for being overweight. Limit juice to 8 ounces (1 cup) per day. Offer fresh fruit instead of juices.
  • Serve less meat and make it lean. Prepare only the leanest cuts of meats, pork, and poultry without skin. Fish is also a great choice. Try having a meatless lunch or dinner a few times a week, using beans or soy products.
  • Serve more fruits and vegetables. Most children don't eat enough fruits and vegetables. Take every opportunity to serve them. Breakfast and snack times are perfect for fruit. All lunch and dinner meals should be served with vegetables. Always have a full fresh fruit bowl on the counter and baby carrots in the refrigerator for snacking. Offer vegetables to dip in low-fat dressing. Vegetable soups and colorful salads are good appetizers. Try making a salad with baby spinach, mandarin oranges, crushed nuts and fruit-based dressing. Include the kids in making up new salad combinations. Try to select from all 5 vegetable "subgroups" (dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables, and others) several times a week.
  • Don't eat out as much. Try to eat at fast food restaurants less often. If you are just picking up food to take home, try ordering the entrée only. Skip the fries, high- fat side dishes, and soda. Serve burgers with fresh fruit, leftover corn on the cob, and milk or juice. Be creative.
  • Limit fats. Avoid offering too much saturated fat such as butter, sour cream, and cream cheese. Cook with canola or olive oils and use only very soft or tub margarines (look for those without trans-fats). Choose low-fat dressings and light mayonnaise.
  • Give kids a chance to get used to new foods. When trying new foods, realize that children are not small adults. They react to textures and flavors differently, and some foods, like certain strong smelling vegetables and rough grains will not be something they like until they are older. Many kids won't try a new food until it is offered many times. Continue to offer a variety of food but try not to become frustrated or force them to eat new foods. Let your child help prepare new foods to help them get familiar with new tastes, textures, and smells.
  • Help your kids control the amount they eat. Even if you spend a lot of time making a dish, don't make your children clean their plate when they tell you they're full. Serve small portions. If your child is still hungry, he or she will ask for more. Some children want very large portions and eat past the point of being full. This puts them at risk for being overweight. The key to encouraging good eating habits is for you to offer healthy foods and allow seconds of fruit, vegetables, and salad, while limiting other foods to 1 portion.
  • Have scheduled meals and snack times. Children, especially younger ones, like to know what to expect. Family dinners are very important and are often the only time when the whole family is together.

What should I do if my child is overweight?

If you are concerned that your child is overweight, talk to your child's healthcare provider. Children are rarely put on calorie-restricted diets because it can affect normal growth. Kids often gain too much weight from eating too many high-calorie snacks and fast foods, drinking too much soda and juice, and not getting enough exercise. Children and teenagers should be physically active for at least 60 minutes every day or most every day.

You can get more information about healthy eating from:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-08-03
Last reviewed: 2012-06-18
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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