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Childhood Nutrition: 4 Strategies for Helping Your Kids Eat Better

As a father of three, the idea of children enduring any of this stuff is simply heartbreaking. But there is good news: As parents, we can prevent a lot of these problems simply by feeding our children whole, healthy foods.
08/24/2015 01:06pm ET | Updated August 24, 2016
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Want to improve what your children are eating?

If the answer is yes, I commend you, because childhood nutrition is extraordinarily important.

Right from the start, nutrition shapes brain development, metabolism, and overall health.

Unfortunately, poor childhood nutrition is a growing problem in North America. Did you know that about one-third (33 percent) of U.S. children are classified as overweight or obese? That's one serious statistic.

Childhood obesity can cause a host of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, asthma, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, arterial plaque build up, impaired insulin sensitivity, pre-diabetes, and disturbed hormonal development... all before your children reach adulthood, or even puberty.

And that's not all. Poor nutrition can lead to disturbed gut health, which leaves our vulnerable little tykes prone to immune issues and digestive problems.

Plus, over-fat children have higher long-term risk of chronic conditions such as stroke, cancer, musculoskeletal disorders, and gall bladder disease.

As a father of three, the idea of children enduring any of this stuff is simply heartbreaking.

But there is good news: As parents, we can prevent a lot of these problems simply by feeding our children whole, healthy foods.

I know: Parenting is not an easy job. (Father of three, remember?) But with some smart, simple strategies, you can set your children of up for a lifetime of healthy -- and pleasurable -- eating.

Here's how.

Strategy #1: Choose whole, minimally-processed foods most of the time.

Give your chidren whole, healthy foods to eat. Obvious, right?

Unfortunately, we are inundated with processed foods that are cleverly marketed to kids (and parents) as "kid-friendly" or "healthy."

Don't be fooled.

Learn to read labels like a boss. Don't make assumptions based on the branding: Read the ingredients. Look for hidden sugars, hydrogenated oils, and other unwanted junk.

Sugar, in all its forms, is definitely one to watch. A little bit is fine from time to time. But excess sugar disrupts childrens' natural appetite regulation and can contribute to excess body fat, cardiovascular disease, and insulin resistance.

And sugar shows up all over the place, especially in foods marketed to children. Look closely and you'll find a shocking amount of sugar in stuff like breakfast cereal, yogurt, juices, granola bars and other treats.

Luckily, small substitutions can add up. Whole fruit instead of juice, for example. Real oatmeal with berries instead of sugary breakfast cereal.

Or try a classic parent trick: diluting fruit juice with water; mixing flavored yogurt with plain yogurt; or cutting chocolate milk with regular milk.

And don't forget to keep your children hydrated. Water is the best sugar-free thirst-quencher around.

Consider eliminating fruit juices in favor of whole fruit and try using primarily water and unsweetened tea for your children's beverages.

Strategy #2: Incorporate more fruits and vegetables.

Children need lots of fruit and veggies: In general, I recommend about 3-5 x 1-cup servings a day.

But far too many children aren't meeting this requirement. Common nutrient deficiencies among children include iron, vitamin A, iodine, zinc, selenium, and many of the B vitamins.

Eating a wide array of vegetables and fruits can help make sure your child is getting all these important nutrients, and more.

Of course, not all children will love all fruits and veggies right away. (Or to put it in kid terms: eeeyuck!)

Here are some tips to address common problems.

Problem: "My kids don't like vegetables."

Solution: Prepare vegetables differently. Try roasting, making into a soup, sneaking veggies into a shake with fruit, or serving them raw. For bonus points, create veggie characters with whole pepper bodies, green bean limbs, broccoli hair, carrot circle eyes, cucumber noses, etc.

And remember, it might require ten or more exposures before a child embraces a new food. So give it time and keep looking for ways to incorporate veggies into meals.

You can also involve your children in vegetable and fruit prep -- even young children can do things like snap the ends off green beans, mash avocados, or tear up lettuce for salad. The more involved children are, the more likely they are to try new foods.

Problem: "My kids are swayed by junk food marketing."

Solution: Don't rely on advertising to make food choices. Teach children to be media-savvy. Help them understand that advertising is designed to sell stuff -- not necessarily with their well-being in mind.

Meanwhile, try taking your children to the farmers' market or a favorite grocery store. Let them explore the produce section and choose some things they'd like to try.

Problem: "There's peer pressure to eat non-nutritious foods"

Solution: What happens around peers stays around peers. Focus on eating better at home.

As much as children can be swayed by peers, you are their number one influence. Concentrate on leading by example (more on that in strategy #4).

Problem: "My kids are super picky"

Solution: If your child absolutely won't eat vegetables, look for other nutrient-dense foods that he/she will tolerate.

For example, if veggies are a no go, provide lots of berries, tender fruits, beans, nuts, avocado, eggs, and citrus. And keep trying to introduce new veggies; in time, they'll catch up.

Strategy #3: Help children eat the right amount.

Given the right conditions, children tend to be intuitive eaters. Their body cues tell them how much they need.

Some days they'll eat more, some days less. Their bodies will naturally regulate their intake over the long term. So trying to count calories for otherwise healthy children is wasted effort.

However, children's amazing abilities to self-regulate can be messed up by things like:

- inappropriate portion sizing
- processed foods
- restricting foods
- labeling some foods as "bad"
- eating while rushed, distracted, or on the go

As a parent, you might be tempted to enforce strict rules, like never eating "bad" foods or insisting your children clean their plates. It can also be tempting to use food as rewards or bribes. But these strategies often make things worse.

To ensure that children keep eating intuitively for life, create a healthy eating environment at home. Serve a variety of unprocessed whole foods in appropriate portions. Avoid strict "eating rules" or references to children's weight.

Don't make healthy eating a big deal; just quietly remove the poor choices, while making healthy choices abundantly available.

Give children the feeling of choice and self-determination. Get them involved in shopping, meal planning and cooking. And let them stop eating when they're no longer hungry.

Finally, slow down when you eat. Make meal time a positive family experience.

Strategy #4: Take the lead.

Okay parents, you knew this one was coming.

It's your job to provide food for your children. But it's also your job to set an example. Ultimately, children pay more attention to what their parents do than what their parents say.

So, what's the single most important thing you can do to help your children?

You guessed it: Adopt healthy habits yourself.

In other words, if you're not already eating your veggies, now's the time to start.

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Want help finding the best exercise, eating, and lifestyle advice for you? Download these free starter kits for men and women:

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About the author

John Berardi, Ph.D. is a founder of Precision Nutrition, the world's largest online nutrition coaching company. He also sits on the health and performance advisory boards of Nike, Titleist and Equinox.

Dr. Berardi was recently selected as one of the 20 smartest coaches in the world by livestrong.com, the internet's most popular fitness site.

In the last five years, Dr. Berardi and his team have personally helped over 30,000 people improve their eating, lose weight, and boost their health through their renowned Precision Nutrition Coaching program.

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