Helping children eat right

Cute Hispanic elementary school student holding tray of cafeteria foodAugust is National Kids Eat Right month. This also happens to be when most children head back to school. Many parents are left frustrated because their kids may not seem to want to eat the lunch provided by their school, and parents begin to run out of ideas of what to pack for their lunches. It’s important to provide a balanced diet for our children; not only will instilling healthy habits now promote healthier eating throughout their lives, but their health now can affect their health as adults.

Many parents know that their child should eat fruits and veggies, but do you know how much from each food group children should get? The biggest issues I see in many of my patients is a skewed concept of proper portion sizes. Children don’t need to eat as much as an adult, and in a society where large portion sizes have become the norm, what a child should be eating may seem like not enough, but remember….their tummies are smaller. While exact needs of an individual may require the calculations of a registered dietitian, below is a general recommendation of serving sizes based on age.

FOOD # OF SERVINGS EACH DAY 1-3 YEARS 4-5 YEARS 6-12 YEARS 12 YEARS+
Grains (bread, cereal, pasta) 5 or less 1/2 slice or 1/4 cup 1/2 slice or 1/2 cup 1 slice or 1/2 cup 1 slice or 1/2 cup
Vegetables 3-5 1/4 cup 1/3 cup 1/2 cup 1/2 cup
Fruits 2-4 1/4 cup 1/3 cup 1/2 cup 1/2 cup
Dairy (milk products) 2-3 1/2 cup 3/4 cup 1 cup 1 cup
Protein 2-3 1 oz. or 1/4 cup 1-1/2 oz. or 1/3 cup 2 oz. or 1/2 cup 2-3 oz. or 1/2 cup

Well, if you’re like me, you don’t have a kitchen scale to measure ounces (I know…a dietitian without a kitchen scale) or you are in a hurry and getting the measuring cups out to measure every little thing is a bit ridiculous. So, what do these recommendations look like? Well, the answer lies in the palm of your hand…. literally!

  • A fist or cupped hand equals 1 cup.
  • The palm of your hand is about 3 oz. of meat.
  • A thumb is equal to 1 oz. of cheese.
  • The tip of your thumb is 1 teaspoon.
  • A handful is 1-2 oz. of snack food.
  • One tennis ball is the equivalent size of 1/2 cup of fruit and vegetables.

Now you know how much to give them, but WHAT do you give them?! Variety is the key. All foods come with their individual combinations of macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.). These are all essential and to ensure your child is receiving an adequate amount of them, a variety really is important. Below I have listed some websites to visit to get you started with some ideas of what to serve. “But my kid is so picky!” I swear this is not a problem specific to your child. It’s a common theme. A good practice to get your child to try new foods is to let them get involved in every process of eating. Let them go to the grocery with you. Have them choose a new fruit or vegetable to try. Let them choose a recipe and help make it. Have them serve it and help clean up.

Don’t ever force a child to try a new food (this will have the opposite end result you want)! By letting them have a bit of control, it will help to lower their walls of resistance. It can get frustrating and acceptance may not happen instantly but repetition is key. It can take up to about 15-20 times of exposure for a child to accept some new foods. One of the best things you can do to influence better eating in your child, is to lead by example and BONUS…you will get healthier too!

Trying to come up with new ideas so our kids don’t get burned out on the same things can become daunting, so for more ideas on recipes and other healthy tips please visit the links provided below:

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About Susan Wilson, R.D.

Susan Wilson is a registered dietitian with UofL Physicians – Pediatric Gastroenterology. She received her bachelor’s degree in dietetics from the University of Kentucky, and her dietetic practicum rotations through Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa. She is currently working on completing her master’s in public health promotion. She has served on the Kentucky Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics board of directors for the past two years. Wilson’s daughter has a nut and peanut allergy. This firsthand knowledge helps her as she works with her patients with food allergies, intolerance or any other condition where a restrictive diet is required. When she has any downtime, she enjoys jogging, working in her garden, and traveling to new places.

All posts by Susan Wilson, R.D.