When we were younger, my brother and sister and I actually looked forward to a dinner including a serving of “little trees” (broccoli spears) or perhaps some “tiny cabbages” (Brussels sprouts). Maybe there would be “egg boats” – half a deviled egg decked with a lettuce leaf for a sail and piece of carrot for the mast. In addition to colorful names for veggies, there was always a large bowl on the table, stocked with several kinds of fruit, ready for a handy snack. A juicy orange, a crunchy apple or a ripe banana could always be found.
Turns out, my mom was on the right track when it came to healthy eating for kids. She was making healthy foods fun!
“I really encourage snacking!” says Dr. Shirlee E. Kuhl a pediatrician at Henry Ford Medical Center – Lakeside. “Most children should eat more often – every four hours, especially if there are weight issues.”
Kuhl encourages eating vegetables and dip or fruit and cheese instead of traditional snacking like chips or candy. “Children love bright colors and enjoy foods that are visually appealing,” she says. “They can also be involved in growing vegetables in their garden to enjoy as well as going grocery shopping and picking out new things to try.”
Nutritionists recommend including a serving of fruit and a vegetable at every meal, aiming for 5 or more servings daily.
“As children get older, continue to work on expanding the variety of foods that are offered including unique textures and the great variety of foods from other cultures,” Kuhl says.
One way to sneak some extra fruit into your child’s day is by making a “smoothie.” Blend low-fat yogurt or milk with fruit pieces and crushed ice. Bananas, berries, peaches and pineapple are good choices, alone or paired with one another. Use fresh, frozen, canned, and even overripe fruits. ChooseMyPlate.gov points out if you freeze the fruit first, you can skip the ice.
In addition to fruits and veggies, drinking enough water is essential to good health. Kuhl notes that even slight dehydration may make your child feel tired, and she encourages offering water frequently.
“Children should be given water often and it is often better to give tap water that is fluoridated than bottled water,” she says. “You can also buy some great ‘infusers’ to give the water flavor such as you might find in an expensive spa – try cucumbers as well as fruits for a unique and refreshing drink.”
For maximum ingredient control, Kuhl suggests making your own baby food. “It is becoming easier, cheaper, and more fun to make your own baby foods and thus avoid the salt, sugars and lack of variety that are in commercially-made baby foods,” she says.
Kuhl points out that food that the rest of the family eats can be pureed and frozen in portions such as ice cube trays and stored in freezer bags. “Then, it is convenient to thaw in the microwave and have fresh homemade food whenever you need it,” she adds.
“As children grow, continue to not over salt or sweeten the foods that are served in the home, and they will become accustomed to not needing excess salt or sugar in their diet,” Kuhl says.
Kuhl points out that repeated exposure to a food, as with any experience, brings comfort and increases the chances that the food will continue to be accepted. “It is possible to learn to like a food, even as an adult by repeated exposure and by varying the methods of preparation, as well. Eat and repeat several times,” she says.
This post was originally published in 2015 and has been updated for 2016.