Kids are awesome. They love to explore and learn and by the age of 3, they are always asking “why?”. This presents a great opportunity to teach them about food and nutrition – and to set a foundation of healthy eating for life!
This doesn’t mean pursuing perfection. The fact is that between playdates, school and being on the go, we don’t always have total control of our children’s diet. That’s why I like to recommend the 80-20 rule when it comes to nutrition and healthy eating.
80 percent of the time, you focus on eating healthy whole foods. The other 20 percent of the time, you have the freedom to be more flexible. This could mean feeling ok to offer a side of ketchup with a great meal, or not fretting about the occasional hot dog day at school.
Day to day, here are three straightforward and powerful ways to boost your child’s nutrition and set them on a path to healthy eating for life.
Avoid Sneaky Sugars
Studies have shown that decreasing sugar, even those found naturally, can reduce the prevalence of obesity and its related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. So when you’re at the grocery store with your child, make a point of looking at labels together to get a handle on sugar content, explaining how too much can affect their body.
Familiarize yourself with the many different words for sugar: “syrup”, “sweetener” anything ending in “ose” can usually be assumed to be sugar. You also have to be careful about natural sugars, such as “organic dehydrated cane juice” – it’s still sugar! Sometimes there will be small amounts of many types of sugars and they do add up.
One of the easiest ways to reduce sugar is to limit fruit juices – including naturally-sweetened varieties. Offer your child water throughout the day, so they will be well-hydrated and less likely to ask for juice. Add lemon or a special cup to make water fun and when you do serve juice, keep portions small (about 4 oz daily).
Stick to True Colors
Studies have shown that food dyes can impair behavior in children, causing tantrums, and anger. Teach children that there are unhealthy food dyes in many common foods like cereal, cookies, macaroni and cheese – and especially in most foods billed as “treats”, like gummies and candies.
When it comes to choosing treats with my own children, we make a game of guessing which foods contain dyes and which don’t. We ask questions like, “how bright is it?”, “could that be found in nature?” and narrow down the healthiest option to pick. Eliminating food dyes completely is near-impossible so apply the 80/20 rule here as well.
Snacking gets a bad rap, but healthy snacking can make a very positive contribution to your child’s nutrition – poor timing is the culprit. I believe it’s good for children to come to the table with a healthy appetite and even a hungry feeling in their stomach. For older kids, this means avoiding snacks 1-2 hours before meal time.
Toddlers are less able to wait it out and might be too tired when dinnertime rolls around for a big meal, since it’s so close to bedtime. That’s why I suggest following their natural hunger cues – providing most of their nutrition at breakfast and lunch, and offering nutrition-packed snacks late afternoon. Avocado, black beans, veggies and whole grains are all great options. That way, if they pick at their dinner, there’s no need to worry.
Cookies, granola bars and other sweetened foods are treats and should only be offered occasionally, using the 80/20 rule as a guide. This does not mean a treat after every meal or even every day. Use your judgement to find the solution that’s right for your family.
Bonus Tip: Choose non-GMO
Genetically modified ingredients have not been tested on children and are heavily regulated in many parts of the world, including Europe, which requires labeling for all genetically modified food.
Though scientists are still debating the impact, GMO crops typically require heavy doses of pesticides and herbicides to survive. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, ‘Children are exposed to pesticides every day and are uniquely vulnerable to their toxicity’.
These simple tips are a great way to boost your little one’s health – and to foster a love of healthy eating that lasts a lifetime.
 Hu FB. Resolved: there is sufficient scientific evidence that decreasing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption will reduce the prevalence of obesity and obesity-related diseases. Obes Rev. 2013;14(8):606-19.
Photo credit: Ella Alfon
Get Dr. Greene's Wellness Recommendations
Sign up now for a delightful weekly email with insights for the whole family.