Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Many parents may look at the previous menu and sigh with a combination of wistfulness and frustration, knowing that their children are far from ideal eaters and might reject some of these choices. The key is to do what you can to tailor a healthy diet that capitalizes on what your child will eat. Experiment and mix and match healthy choices within the different food groups to create meals that are appealing and nutritious. For example, if your child dislikes (or is allergic to) peanuts, serve an egg white omelet for breakfast with some blueberries. Or, make a yogurt "parfait" by layering whole grain oat cereal, berries, and lowfat yogurt in a transparent cup. For a healthy pizza lunch, toast whole grain pitas or whole wheat muffins with sauce and sprinkles of organic low-fat mozzarella cheese.
Sometimes, making food visually intriguing by arranging it in "faces" or designs can entice finicky children to eat. Purchasing plates and glasses featuring entertaining characters and shapes may be another way to coax reluctant eaters to the table. Finally, having children become involved in food preparation and selection (in an age-appropriate manner with direct supervision) can help them develop an interest in trying new things (or, at least, eating what is around).
People tend to develop their attitudes and habits around food at an early age, so this developmental stage is a perfect time for caregivers to positively mold preschoolers' eating patterns. Just as in all other areas of learning, young children learn by watching their caregivers' habits. Whatever Mommy eats for lunch is probably what Janey will want as well. Therefore, the best way for caregivers to teach young children about nutrition is to make healthy eating part of your family's regular everyday lifestyle. Caregivers should themselves cook nutritious meals, sip on healthy beverages, and nibble on healthful snacks.
Unfortunately, caregivers aren't the only influences in a young child's world. Kids will see cheese doodles, sugary cereals, and chocolate cupcakes on television or in grocery store displays. They will also inevitably sit next to or play with other children who eat a mind-boggling array of unhealthy junk foods. Caregivers should continue to model and encourage their children to engage in positive eating habits by making healthy choices at the store, restaurants, and friend's homes. Neither children nor adults should be eating salty fried snacks, fat and sugar-loaded sweets, caffeinated soft drinks, or greasy fast food as part of their daily menu. However, it's alright for caregivers to provide an occasional treat or splurge for their children. Allowing such treats teaches young children an important lesson from an early age that there are no bad or forbidden foods. Allowing all desired foods to be consumed (if in small portions and only occasionally) helps to defend children (especially little girls) from developing eating disorders later on in life.
If young children learn to like healthful foods and to make wise eating choices early on, they will be more likely to continue healthy eating behavior in adulthood and consequently to become healthier adults. Healthy eating, combined with adequate exercise, can protect young children from developing obesity. According to by the World Health Organization, 42 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2013. Obese means that their body weight is 20% more than what it should be for their age, gender, and physical build. As a result, more and more school-age children are being diagnosed with chronic diseases such as Type II diabetes, where the body cannot respond properly to insulin (a hormone that is involved in breaking down sugars in food). Type II diabetes was once known as "adult-onset diabetes", because this disease was relatively rare in children. However, the rising numbers of overweight or obese youth have changed the use of this term.
Children who are obese run the risk of developing social and emotional problems. For example, obese children are often ostracized or become the targets of bullies. These children may feel isolated and lonely, develop low self-esteem, and become anxious or depressed. In addition, children who are obese run a high risk of staying obese as adults. Adult obesity can lead to a host of additional health problems such as diabetes, cancer, stroke, and heart disease.
Obesity can often be prevented in today's youth by educating them about positive lifestyle habits, along with offering encouragement and guidance. If children start to become overweight and/or obese, take action as soon as possible. Seeking professional guidance is a good idea, as there are ways to help children regain a normal weight without using dieting strategies that are physically unhealthy and mentally damaging (e.g., you do not want further lower a child's self-esteem or set the stage for an eating disorder). Caregivers should consult with a pediatrician for any concerns about a child's eating behavior and nutrition habits.
Beyond just providing the fuel and nutrients for growing up healthy, eating can also be an activity that promotes social development and family bonding. If family meal times are enjoyable events that encourage talking, sharing, and laughing, young children will be eager to participate and to become part of the action. This will also help young children feel connected, loved, and part of the family. Moreover, they can begin to learn basic manners and social rules. By watching other adults and children at the dinner act respectfully by saying "please" and "thank you" (and using other appropriate table manners) they will gradually learn polite table manners too. It's important for caregivers to remember that young children are in the process of learning the rules, and don't yet have them perfected. Too much insistence on proper form, or harshness when manners are temporarily forgotten can be counter-productive. The goal is to create a family culture involving meals that are relaxed and fun for youngsters and other participants, rather than an anxious or argumentative time.
Unfortunately, the dinner table can easily become a prime target for conflict between caregivers and children. Often, parents want to expand their children's culinary horizons and make them try new and adventurous foods. Either because they're not in the mood to eat something new, or because they want a chance to exert their independence and fierce will, young children will sometimes say "NO!" and crank out a few tears. There is hope, however, that parents can still salvage the dinnertime peace. By remaining calm but firm, caregivers can prevent a power struggle that will lead to everyone's escalating level of anger and frustration. One of the better strategies for avoiding conflict is to offer children a choice between limited alternatives (e.g., do you want to eat the rice first, or try the broccoli?). Offering limited choices can help give children a sense of control but also reins in their more extravagant tendencies. More information about using choice strategies can be found in our article on Pre-operational Stage Discipline.
Caregivers shouldn't attempt to force new foods on young children who aren't open to them. However, by giving children multiple chances to try these foods across multiple meals, children may gradually become tempted to be more adventurous eaters. Some parents may be tempted to bribe young children to try a new healthful food by promising a special sweet reward at the end of the meal. This may get the child to comply in the short term, but over time this method tends to teach children to seek bribes (increasing amounts of reward) rather than to seek out new experiences for their own sake. In addition, children may start to expect sweets at every meal, rather than for special occasions.