The start of a new school year is here, and as kids start the year off with a renewed commitment to learning, now is also a great time for parents to make a renewed commitment to helping their kids develop healthy eating habits.
Eating a well-balanced diet that includes enough protein, fruits and vegetables is essential to making sure kids have the energy they need to function well throughout the day. However, Jennifer Eisenstein, a family nurse practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine, says many parents these days are so worried that their kids are eating too many carbohydrates and not enough protein that they are limiting their carbohydrates unnecessarily.
“There is a misconception that children don’t need lots of carbohydrates,” Eisenstein says. “This is not true. When they don’t have enough carbohydrates, it can cause weight loss from ketosis, lead to dehydration and cause them to not be able to think straight.”
Here are the recommended amounts of protein, fruits and vegetables that kids should get each day, according to the CDC and the Institute of Medicine.
- Age 2 to 3
Protein: 13 grams
Fruit: 1 cup
Vegetables: 1 cup
- Age 4 to 8
Protein: 19 grams
Fruit: 1-1½ cups
Vegetables: 1-1½ cups
- Age 9 to 13
Protein: 34 grams
Fruit: 1½ cups
Vegetables: 2 cups for girls, 2½ cups for boys
To keep things in perspective, realize that just one cheese stick provides 8 grams of protein, and one egg is 6 grams of protein, so your kids probably aren’t as protein deprived as you may think.
But, as any parent will tell you, getting kids to eat their recommended daily amount of vegetables is more of a challenge.
Here are some tips and tricks to encourage healthy eating habits for kids:
- Pack Vegetables in Their Lunch
If you can’t get your kids to eat their entire daily amount of vegetables at dinner, then it’s important to try to encourage them to eat some veggies at lunch, too. Eisenstein suggests packing veggies like baby carrots, sliced cucumbers, red peppers, or tomatoes in their lunch with a healthy dip made from yogurt or hummus to make it more fun.
- Let Kids Help Grocery Shop
One way to have kids get more excited about healthy eating is to let them have a say in what they’re going to be eating. “The best way to pack healthy lunches is to allow your kids to select options with you in the grocery store and then have them help you make the lunches. Letting kids join in on the process is beneficial and overall, very helpful in teaching them how to make good choices,” Eisenstein says. Just be sure to say “no” when they pick out junk food at the grocery store!
- Try New Fruits and Vegetables
Dr. Kelsie Lazzell, a functional medicine doctor of chiropractic and naturopathy at the Center for Holistic Medicine, says you shouldn’t just serve kids the same old peas and carrots over and over again. Instead, when you bring them to the store with you, let them pick out new fruits and vegetables to keep things exciting. “Starfruit is one of my favorites, as kids tend to like the shape and it’s a good source of fiber and nutrients,” she says.
- Avoid Processed Foods, Even If They’re Labeled as “Healthy”
“Don’t give your kids anything processed!” Dr. Lazzell says. “They contain hidden sources of harmful chemicals, they’re devoid of nutrients, and chock full of sugar and food colorings, which are a known nervous system stimulant.”
And Tanya Tanzillo, DNP, a functional medicine nurse practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine, says parents should realize that even foods that are labeled as healthy — such as veggie straws, organic snack mixes, popcorn and more — are not as healthy as they seem. “They’re processed, too,” she says. Instead, she recommends giving your kids whole foods such as bananas, strawberries, carrot sticks, peppers with hummus, or celery with almond butter for snacks.
- Make Your Own Snacks
As mentioned above, anything that comes in a bag or box is processed, which means it’s probably not as healthy as you think. So if you are going to choose something processed, look for products with the least amount of ingredients.
For an even healthier alternative, try making your own snacks, and involve your kids in the process of making them to make it even more fun.
Eisenstein says one easy snack to make yourself is trail mix, made from a mixture of nuts, granola, chocolate chips and raisins. And Dr. Lazzell suggests making your own jelly gummies using fresh fruit puree or fruit juice and quality gelatin, which can support a healthy gut lining, the immune system, and improve your child’s overall protein intake.
“I also like to make my own granola bars to avoid all the added sugar, and you can pack them full of healthy nuts, seeds, and grains for high fiber, high omega 3 fatty acids, high protein, and high levels of fullness,” she says.
- Avoid Giving Kids Foods High in Sugar
It’s tempting as a parent to want to let your kids have sweets, especially if you were allowed to eat high-sugar foods in your own childhood. But Eisenstein says it’s important to avoid giving kids anything high in sugar, such as high-sugar cereals, soda, or candy. “These are empty calories that add weight but offer no nutritional support for growing children,” she says.
Dr. Jerry Gore, MD, clinical director of the Center of Holistic Medicine, recommends reading all food labels and not giving your children anything that has added sugars in it. “Instead, sweeten foods with fruits, such as raisins or dates, honey (except for children younger than one), or maple syrup if necessary,” he says.
- Always Buy Organic
Eating organic fruits and vegetables is a good idea for everyone. But Dr. Gore says eating organic food is especially important for kids because many processed foods contain phytoestrogens, which can affect the hormones in kids who are still developing.
- Don’t Be Too Hard on Your Kids
Although it’s important to instill good, healthy eating habits in our kids, don’t push your kids too hard to eat things they don’t want to. “Parents should focus on having fun while helping their children make healthy choices. Try not to be too hard on your children when they don’t want to eat all their vegetables, but instead, continue to encourage them to try new things on a daily or weekly basis,” Eisenstein says.
Tanzillo agrees. “Remember, kids can be picky and this is OK. Try not to make food an argument. You don’t want to say things like, ‘You can’t leave the table until you eat your broccoli.’ Just let them eat their favorites and just take the opportunity to present other foods occasionally to rechallenge them to see if they will try.”
Some healthy lunch and snack ideas:
- Turkey sandwich, apple, red peppers with hummus
- 2 cheese sticks, grapes, tortilla chips with guacamole
- Tuna sandwich, clementine, celery sticks with Sunbutter
- Turkey and cheese roll-ups, strawberries, carrot sticks with yogurt dip
- Hummus, pita bread, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, unsweetened applesauce
Homemade Snack ideas
- Pretzels with peanut butter
- Carrot sticks with peanut butter or hummus
- Trail mix made from nuts, granola, chocolate chips, and raisins
- Greek yogurt with granola or fruit on top
- Homemade granola bars
- Jennifer Eisenstein, Family Nurse Practitioner
Routine wellness exams for children and treats sick children and adults
- Dr. Kelsie Lazzell, Doctor of Chiropractic & Naturopathic Practitioner
Functional medicine, acupuncture and more for children and adults