OXFORD, Miss. – Getting children to eat healthy meals can be a challenge, but a University of Mississippi nutrition expert says the task is simple and fun.
Parents have all the power when it comes to making sure children have well-balanced nutrition, said Shannon FitzGerald, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at the Institute of Child Nutrition.
“They can lead by example by choosing nutrient-rich food for themselves,” Fitzgerald said. “Involve children in gardening, shopping, meal planning and preparation, encouraging lifetime skills of healthy eating. Keep healthy foods like tasty fruits, crunchy vegetables and yogurt on hand, making it easy to grab.”
Nutrition is a key factor, FitzGerald said. Focus on a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods.
“Think whole grains, like brown rice and whole-wheat bread, that give super energy,” she said. “Don’t forget the rainbow of fruits and veggies. They’re like vitamin-packed treasures that help children grow big and strong.
“Tasty proteins like chicken, beans and yogurt build muscles to stay fit.”
Children should limit their intake of sugary snacks, sugary beverages and highly processed foods, as these items provide empty calories – foods that have substantial calories but provide little other nutritional value – and lack essential nutrients, the components we obtain through our diet that are required by our body to function properly: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and water.
“The dietary guidelines for children’s sugar intake recommend keeping added sugars to a minimum,” FitzGerald said. “That means swapping sugary foods and beverages for more nutrient-packed options like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“Processed foods often contain unhealthy trans fats and excessive sodium, which can have negative impacts on cardiovascular health and overall well-being.”
Tips for Identifying Healthy Foods
- Include fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors.
- Choose whole grain bread and cracker options.
- Pair fruits and vegetables with a protein-containing food such as cheese or nuts.
- Don’t forget to hydrate! Opt for water or milk rather than sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Be mindful of serving size, especially for foods with high sodium, added sugar or saturated fat content.
FitzGerald advises parents to read labels on foods before giving them to their children.
“At the top of the nutrition facts label, consider the serving size and servings per container,” she said. “Next, notice the calorie content. Look for foods that contain substantial amounts of dietary fiber, calcium, Vitamin D and potassium. These nutrients are commonly underrepresented in children’s diets and are essential for health.
“Trans fat should be minimal, if not zero. Saturated fat and added sugars should be limited in your child’s diet.”
For parents short on time, Fitzgerald offered the following nutritious snack suggestions:
- Apple or banana with nut butter
- String cheese and whole-grain crackers
- Veggies, including carrots, bell peppers and cucumbers, with hummus
- Whole-grain toast with mashed avocado
- Cottage cheese and berries
- Yogurt and granola
- Mixed nuts and grapes
- Hard-boiled egg and clementines
Regarding eating during the holidays, FitzGerald said consistency is key to child nutrition.
“Prioritizing healthful meals and snacks can help ensure your child gets all the nutrients they need even in the holiday frenzy,” she said. “Rather than offering holiday sweets as a standalone treat when your child is hungry, offer them with meals or snacks.
“If sweets are paired with a nourishing meal, your child will feel more satisfied and moderate portions will seem more natural.”
Eating right is a lifelong journey that should begin at the youngest age possible, she said.
“For children, it plays a pivotal role in growth, development and overall health,” she said. “Adequate nutrition also supports children’s immune systems and cognitive function.
“Healthy nutrition during childhood establishes healthy eating habits that carry into adulthood, reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”
“It’s a treasure chest of kid-friendly recipes that grownups will love, too,” she said. “Additionally, reputable websites, blogs and social media platforms share creative and healthful meal ideas from registered dietitian nutritionists and chefs.”