The Importance of Proper Nutrition for Children

Compiled by Mrs. Margaret Gisonni with the support of the KHM staff.

There’s no doubt about it: Children can be picky eaters. Some children only want to eat one type of food, some children won’t try any new foods and some children won’t eat any foods of a particular color. Is your child a picky eater? Well, there’s some comforting news. According to Dr. Leann Birch, Professor and Head of the Human Development and Family Studies Department at Penn State University, “Most children who are perceived as picky eaters probably have adequate diets. What parents often perceive as picky eating simply reflects their children’s normal response to new foods.”

Children are naturally “neophobic,” which means they have an innate fear of trying anything new or foreign, and this includes food. It is normal for children between the ages of 2 and 5 years to resist eating new foods, and may have about four to five favorite foods that they readily accept. Learning that this is a natural part of your children’s development can help you relax a bit about what your child chooses to eat or reject. So if your child is a picky eater, here are some tips to try!

You should know that there are some effective ways you can help make healthy foods like fruits and vegetables all-time favorite choices in your home. Children should be allowed to decide what and how much they eat, but it’s the parents’ responsibility to make healthy foods available to their children to choose from and eat.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Earlier is better.
  2. It’s important to expose your child to healthy fruits and vegetables at a young age. Food preferences that children develop in their early years remain fairly stable and are reflected by the food choices they make in later childhood.
  3. Be patient and keep trying.
  4. Parents who get discouraged by children who are picky eaters often stop trying to give them new foods, which could lead to future health problems. Research has shown that in most cases, parents can help their children learn to like new foods through multiple exposures (between 5 and 10) to new foods and opportunities to learn about food and eating. Just offer new foods often, asking your child to try a bite in a positive and supportive way. Although it doesn’t always happen, studies have shown that children will eventually learn to like the new food.
  5. Be a role model.
  6. A recent study found that 2 and 3-year-old children’s food preferences are significantly related to foods that their mothers liked, disliked, and never tasted. So, the more excitement and enjoyment you express about fruits and vegetables, the more likely your child will want to eat them too!
  7. Don’t restrict certain foods.
  8. Research also shows that not allowing children to eat certain foods only raises their desirability for that food. So help children learn that healthy foods like fruits and vegetables are “all the time foods” that they can eat anytime, and that foods like candy and desserts are “sometimes foods” that they can eat once in a while.
  9. Make healthy foods available
  10. As long as you keep healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables around, your child can learn to like and choose them!
  11. Prepare foods in healthy ways.
  12. Small modifications in the way you prepare meals and snacks can make a big difference in improving your child’s diet: Bake instead of fry, choose foods with whole grain or whole wheat instead of refined grains, give your child water or low-fat or skim milk instead of juice or soda, etc.
  13. Don’t force food on a child.
  14. As a parent, you know it’s your job to feed your child. If you set a plate of food in front of your child and they don’t eat or only eat a few bites it can leave you feeling frightened and wondering if he received enough food. You may find yourself resulting to techniques such as: feeding him when he’s old enough to feed himself, following him around with plates of food, demanding that he eat all the food on his plate, bribing him to eat, getting angry or threatening him to eat, pestering him by repeatedly telling him to eat and forcing food into his mouth. Well, how’s that working for you? Children naturally don’t eat very much. They eat less than half the calories of an adult.
  15. Children are more in touch with their natural appetite than adults are. Eating when they aren’t hungry can feel disgusting or painful. Respect their natural sense of hunger. If your child can maintain this natural sense of eating when he’s hungry and stopping when he’s not, he will have a powerful weapon against the culture of recreational eating that he will encounter when he’s an adult.
  16. Pressuring children into eating may make them eat less.
  17. Researchers conducted an experiment where they told one group of children to “finish their food” and let another group of children eat as much as they wanted. The children who were told to finish their food actually ate less than the ones who were left alone! They also made more nasty comments about the food.
  18. Pressuring children into eating more may make them hate food. Adults with food aversions often track their aversion to a time when an adult forced them to eat a food they didn’t like. Researchers found that 72% of adults who were forced to eat a food when they were children said that they permanently refused to eat that food for the rest of their lives! Some children may rebel against the pressure to eat by refusing to eat anything, or only eating certain foods. It gives them a measure of control against the scary prospect of being forced to eat a food that they are on unfriendly terms with, or of eating more food than their stomachs feel comfortable with.
  19. Notice what triggers you into pressuring your child to eat. As a parent, you naturally feel anxious if your child is doing something that you think is unhealthy, like not eating “enough.” Reassure yourself that in all but the rarest of cases, children will eat enough food to survive and be healthy. Notice the times when you feel tempted to pressure your child to eat. Relax, take a deep breath, smile, and say to yourself “His brain knows how much he needs to eat.”
  20. To get your child to eat at mealtimes, try these techniques:

    • Sit down and eat the same food as your child
    • Children often need to try a food many times before they like it. Feed your child healthy foods for each meal, and be patient in the knowledge that they will eventually like them
    • If your child is easily distracted, you can gently call his attention back to his food. Do this only occasionally, so that he does not feel pestered, and only do it when he’s first starting his meal, so that he does not eat when he is no longer hungry.
    • Finally, don’t worry!!!
  21. Make it Fun!!!
  22. Snack and meal-time activities should be introduced and reinforced in creative, colorful and playful ways. There are suggestions below for some fun and easy ways you can make fruits and vegetables an all-time favorite with your child. While you do these activities, allow your child to explore the various properties of fruits and vegetables by touching, tasting, smelling and hearing. Don’t forget to talk about how they are good for the body, too!

    • Try something new. Allow your child to try a new fruit or vegetable. Jicama! Zucchini! Bok Choy! Mango! Papaya! These foods may sound silly, but they taste great and they’re good for you.
    • Do a taste test or a crunch test! Dip carrots into three different flavors of low-fat dressing or try a crunch test with three different kinds of vegetables to see which vegetable crunches the loudest!
    • Play a guessing game! Prepare several foods for your child to taste while he or she is blindfolded. See if your child can identify each food. Help your child use words to describe what he or she tastes, such as salty, sweet, crunchy, smooth, warm, cold, etc.
    • Play “What can we make with this?” Talk about how a certain fruit or vegetable, such an apple, is good for the body. Then, talk about the various foods they can make with an apple.
    • Bake carrot or zucchini muffins together. Discuss how carrots have special vitamins that are really good for eyes.
    • Where do foods come from? With your child, visit a farm to explore where foods come from and how they grow. Can you try planting your own fruit and vegetable? How about a tomato?
    • Make a healthy snack. Have your child pick a variety of fruits to make a fruit salad. As he/she adds each new fruit to the bowl, talk about the colors of each fruit and how they help the body stay healthy in different ways.
    • Involve your children in food shopping and preparing meals. These activities will give you hints about your children’s food preferences, an opportunity to teach your children about nutrition , and provide your kids with a feeling of accomplishment. In addition, children may be more willing to eat or try foods that they help prepare.
    • After grocery shopping, play a sorting game by grouping various fruits and vegetables by different categories – color, taste, texture, food group, etc.

Good nutrition is incredibly important for children even though maintaining it is often difficult for parents. Proper nutrition is essential during childhood so that a child grows to obtain a healthy height and weight and does not have any nutritional deficiencies.

A child’s performance in school is very much related to the child’s eating habits. For instance, children who eat breakfast have better concentration in school than children who skip breakfast. Good nutrition practices involve eating breakfast every morning so that the child will be nourished and ready to focus. Focus and concentration in school result in better learning, which in turn results in more opportunities in life.

Cognitive development increases dramatically in the toddler years with advances in gross and fine motor skills that enable walking, jumping, exploring and practicing new self-feeding skills. Children need a variety of foods that provide energy, protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals for optimal growth and development and the ability to learn. Skipping a meal, especially breakfast, can negatively affect math scores, tardiness, absenteeism and hyperactivity, according to Eleanor Noss Whitney, Ph.D., and Sharon Rady Rolfes in “Understanding Nutrition.”

Encourage and support your child’s good nutrition decisions, especially eating a variety of healthy foods and controlling portion sizes. It is well worth the time and effort and need not be a frustrating, continual battle. Learn about essential nutrients and monitor your child’s growth. You can compare her growth pattern with that of other children of her age and gender by plotting her height and weight on growth charts developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.