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Nutrition for Kids: Ways to Encourage Healthy Eating at Home

Developing good eating habits in childhood sets the stage to keep them for a lifetime. Try these ideas from HSS clinical nutritionist Laura Gibofsky.

Advice to improve your movement, fitness, and overall health from the world's #1 in orthopedics.

Getting kids to eat healthy may be a challenge, but it’s so important to start establishing good nutrition habits as early as possible. “We want to teach healthy eating habits during their younger years, so they take those habits with them as they become adults,” says Laura Gibofsky, MS, RD, CDN, a clinical nutritionist at HSS. Here, she shares more on the importance of good nutrition for children, and how to keep those habits consistent all year long.

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Why is good nutrition important, and what does a healthy diet look like?

Overall, young people (and adults) should eat a diverse diet that includes a variety of different fruits and vegetables; whole grains; protein, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes, and nuts and seeds; low-fat dairy and an appropriate amount of healthy fats. Avocados, walnuts, and olive or canola oil are examples of healthy fats.

For children and teens, it’s of the utmost importance to consume adequate calcium to make sure they are building strong bones. Parents should ensure that their child gets 3 to 4 servings of dairy every day. Dark leafy greens, tofu, lentils, sardines and salmon are also good sources of calcium. Also look for calcium-fortified cereals, breads, and nondairy milk alternatives like rice, soy, almond, cashew, and the like.

Limit soda and sweetened juices and teas. Sweetened beverages often displace milk in children’s diets, and these sweetened drinks do not offer the same bone-building advantages. Bottled fruit smoothies may seem like a healthy choice, but they can be loaded with excess sugar. They are also costly, so if parents have a blender, they would be better off making their own smoothie with milk and fruit.

Is breakfast still considered “the most important meal of the day”? What is considered a healthy breakfast?

Breakfast can really consist of anything, as it is just meant to break the fast from the night before. We want to make sure it is a healthy choice, but if a child wants to eat leftover chicken from the night before, by all means. For breakfast, aim to include a protein, fresh fruit or vegetables, and a whole grain option if possible.

Kids are home a lot more, both during the summertime or because of remote learning for school. That might also mean more snacking. What are the pitfalls, and how can they be avoided?

The goal is to maintain routine meal and snack times. This will help to curb mindless eating and maintain internal hunger cues, which let us know when we are hungry. Too much snacking can lead to weight gain or poor eating during mealtimes.

Many parents focus on whether their child is eating enough. But kids are very good at indicating when they have had enough. Generally, a child should not be encouraged to eat if they’re not hungry.

Could you give us some ideas for healthy snacking?

Try buying pre-portioned items or take only the amount the child should be eating and put it on a plate for snacking. Use smaller plates so that you don’t feel tempted to fill a large plate.

Fresh veggies, such as cherry tomatoes or baby carrots, are always a great option because they require little preparation other than washing them with water. You can also buy pre-cut veggies to keep in the fridge for a snack. Try dipping your vegetables in hummus or a bean dip for some extra protein.

Fresh fruit is another great option, but be mindful of portion sizes, as we don’t want kids to eat an entire watermelon.

Also, read labels. Items marketed as “veggie chips,” for example, are often not vegetables. The label should list vegetables in the first three ingredients.

Do you have additional tips for good health to help families stay on track for healthy eating?

Families stuck at home during the pandemic may have gotten into the habit of buying a lot of processed snack foods loaded with sugar or salt.

People generally feel better when they eat well. Parents who want to get back on track for healthy eating could start with a family meeting to discuss the importance of good eating habits and to talk about making some changes. Get the kids involved in developing good habits.

You could start with a small goal and work your way up to a bigger one. Once you start eating healthy, if you stick with it, it should become the new norm.

Along with a healthy diet, maintaining routine physical activity is important. At home, children could be encouraged to do exercises like jumping jacks or dancing. Outdoors, any activity that gets kids moving is good, such as walking, bike riding or playing in the backyard.

Maintaining a good sleep schedule is also important because it plays into meals. Staying up late and snacking could lead to weight gain, although it’s OK to offer a snack if a child is hungry.

How can families who are experiencing financial hardship right now maintain a healthy diet?

Food insecurity has been a challenge for many families, but programs are available in New York City and other locations to make sure people have access to food.

Here are some organizations that provide food assistance: