The USDA offers recommendations for children and healthy eating through its MyPyramid eating guide. Foods from each major food group should be consumed daily to ensure that children get all of the nutrients their bodies need to function properly. Children 4 to 13 years of age should eat 4 to 5 oz. of grains daily with at least half of these being from whole-grain sources. Each day children should have 1 ½ to 2 cups of vegetables and 1 to 1 ½ cups of fruit. Foods from the milk group should be consumed in quantities of 2 to 3 cups per day. Children should eat 3 to 5 oz. of protein-rich foods daily and 4 to 5 tsp. of oils.
The MyPyramid goes beyond recognizing food groups and servings, as it offers advice on what types of food to eat. Whole grains provide more nutrients and fiber than refined grains, which is why at least half of the grain servings should be whole. Whole grains include oatmeal, quinoa, whole wheat and popcorn, while refined grains include white breads and many sweetened breakfast cereals.
Fruits and vegetables should vary in color and type. Different types of produce provide differing vitamins and minerals. When children eat a rainbow of colors in fruits and vegetables, they will increase the chances of consuming all the nutrients they need.
The milk group includes foods such as cow’s milk, goat’s milk, yogurt, hard cheeses like cheddar and soft cheeses like ricotta. Protein-rich foods should be lean such as chicken, bison, beef or pork. Also include protein sources that have added nutrient benefit such as salmon, which provides heart-healthy fat, and beans, which provide fiber. Oils come from foods such as nuts, olives, cooking oils and avocados. One-half of an avocado, 1 tbsp. cooking oil or 1 oz. of nuts is each equal to about 3 tsp. of oils.
The AHA provides tips for helping children develop healthy habits. The first tip is to set a good example for children. By being a positive role model and practicing healthy eating habits, you will encourage children to do the same. Set specific goals and limits within your family. Allow a special dessert one or two nights a week as long an appropriate amount of fruits and vegetables are eaten that day. Show your positive support and recognize when your child makes an effort to eat healthfully. However, avoid rewarding with food. Celebrate healthy eating habits with seeing a movie or being active together as a family. Eating together as a family helps children develop healthy eating habits and allows you to more closely monitor their food intake.
Many parents become discouraged when their children display characteristics of a picky eater. The AHA ensures that there are ways to deal with a picky eater that will reduce battles over food at the dinner table. Avoid keeping unhealthy foods in the house and have healthy snacks readily available. For example, keep milk and 100 percent fruit juice in the fridge and remove the high-sugar soft drinks. Have carrot sticks cleaned, cut and ready to consume along with handheld fruits such as apples and grapes. Slowly introduce healthy items such as produce into foods that your children already eat regularly. Add berries to pancakes and extra banana on top of cold cereals. Mix vitamin-rich vegetables such as pumpkin into chili or pasta sauce. Take your children shopping with you and allow them to help you cook. The more involved they are in the process, the more likely they will be to taste what they shopped for and made themselves.
The AHA states that overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults. Preventing and reducing overweight early in life can reduce the condition in adulthood along with associated diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Overconsumption of unhealthy foods can lead to excess calories, lower amounts of necessary nutrients and weight gain. Help your children develop healthy eating habits while they are young by serving as a positive role model and incorporating the MyPyramid to guide food intake. You can make an impact on the health of your children and increase the chances that they will remain healthy throughout their lives.