Family eating healthy
Children's Health, Nutrition

Get an Early Start on Healthy Eating for Children

Starting early is the key for parents to establish healthy eating for children. Pediatrician Julia Pillsbury, DO, stresses the importance of good food choices--in what parents buy for their families and what they eat themselves. “If you start kids off with healthy meals and snacks they’ll learn to eat those things. If you give them junk, they’ll want to just eat junk,” she said.

The development of flavor preferences actually begins before birth. So good nutrition among pregnant, as well as breastfeeding, women can shape a child’s inclination for healthy foods. Research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows that while humans may be hard wired for certain taste preferences or aversions, babies exposed to diverse foods and flavors early on, even in utero, are more likely to acquire a broader palate and be less picky. To be a better food role model for your child, be adventurous and try that vegetable you’ve never had before.

Dr. Pillsbury shares the following tips on healthy eating for children.

  • Expose babies to a variety of nutrient-rich foods in appropriate sequence. Introduce solids at 4-6 months and start with vegetables first, advises Dr. Pillsbury. This gets babies accustomed to those flavors before tasting the sweetness of fruits. Avoid honey, cow’s milk and harder foods until one year or later, and you may want to wait 3-5 days between new foods. 
  • Embrace healthy snacking. Don’t be alarmed if your little one is snacking but not eating consistently at mealtimes, Dr. Pillsbury said. Between 18 months and 4 years, appetites tend to drop and children may eat one good meal per day and nibble throughout. For a nutritious snack, try raw carrots or broccoli. Dips, such as ranch dressing, may make this more enticing. Always cut solids into small pieces to avoid choking hazards. Stocking your kitchen with healthy snack options, instead of cookies and chips, encourages good nutrition for older children who are hungry after school and in between meals. 
  • Be mindful of portion sizes. Feeding too much, not in line with serving sizes based on age, encourages overeating, which could lead to weight issues. Start with small servings, then let kids have seconds if still hungry, said Dr. Pillsbury.
  • Avoid battles over food. The togetherness of mealtimes is valuable for families. Dr. Pillsbury’s rule of thumb is to prepare one thing you know your children will eat. “But parents shouldn’t be short order cooks either.” Have kids try at least one bite. And since it can take time to acquire tastes, reintroduce different vegetables periodically. Preparing them in unique ways helps too. 
  • Be careful with fast foods. Dr. Pillsbury warns about starting children off with chicken nuggets from fast food restaurants. They tend to get used to and prefer that processed food taste, and it is hard to get away from that. 
  • Engage children in learning about naturally grown food. “We live in a great area with a lot of fresh produce available,” said Dr. Pillsbury. It helps when kids can be involved in picking their own fruits and vegetables, whether at the grocery store, farm or in their own backyard. 
  • Don’t make sugary foods the go-to treat. Sweets are fine in moderation, but Dr. Pillsbury suggests using something other than candy or junk food if rewarding children for positive behavior.
  • Ensure your child gets enough fluids, especially water. Juices and sodas are empty calories and should largely be avoided. Stick with water and milk.

Although the rate of obesity among children and teens has more than tripled since the 1970s, Dr. Pillsbury feels encouraged by the fact that she sees fewer concerns from parents about eating today than she has in years past. “We are finally making headway in educating people about the importance of healthy eating for children.” She attributes that to more research and information on childhood obesity and the benefits of good nutrition and keeping kids active. There is still room for improvement, and she hopes that more and more parents will make better choices for their families because they recognize the long-term impact on their children’s health.

If your child is in need of a pediatrician, visit Bayhealth's Find a Doctor page or call 1-866-BAY-DOCS (229-3627).

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