“The habits that parents or other caregivers, including grandparents, establish in their children when they are young influence their lifelong food and activity choices,” says Connie Crawly, a nutrition expert with UGA Cooperative Extension.
Chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, early heart disease and stroke can be prevented and controlled if the child and family eat meals low in fat, calories and sodium and high in fiber. It also means choosing the right fats to use in small amounts like olive oil and canola oil.
Children over two-years-old should eat non-fat or low-fat dairy foods, many fruits and vegetables and little red meat. They should enjoy whole-grain breads, pastas and cereals, too, and not eat many fried foods, high-fat desserts or a lot of foods with added fat or sugar.
The recipe for healthy eating can be easier said than done, though, she said.
“If these healthy foods are offered routinely, kids will learn to like them. Most parents give up too easily when a child rejects a food. If they continue to offer it, the child will usually eat it -- eventually,” Crawley said.
When preparing school-time lunches for kids, parents should included good proteins like peanut butter, tuna, non-processed turkey or chicken or even beans or lentils. Pack whole-wheat breads. Homemade veggie soup, small salads and cut vegetables make good side dishes. Fruit or Fig Newtons make a good dessert choice, she said. And don’t forget non-fat milk.
If making a child’s lunch everyday is too much, school cafeterias and food service staff prepare more healthy choices today than in the past. Parents should go over menu items with children to help them make good choices.
“School food service directors and staff are taught to prepare lower-fat and -sugar foods in their training, but if kids do not eat them, they quit preparing them. If the child does not see foods that they like, they should bring food from home,” she said.
Parents can advocate for healthy meals at schools.
“I know the state department of education provides tested recipes that meet the dietary guidelines, and some schools are doing well about providing lower-fat, lower-sugar foods that are higher in fiber,” she said.
The basic foods will not change over time for children, but the amount they consumer will, depending on their weight and physical activity. (Kids need to be active at least 60 minutes each day.)
Healthy eating and exercise increases the metabolic rate and helps a child maintain a healthy weight throughout life, she said, a major step in avoiding many chronic diseases later in life.
“Internal appetite control works best if the child controls his or her food intake even as a preschooler. It is the parent's job to offer a variety of healthy foods, but the child's job to control how much is consumed,” she said.
(Brad Haire is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)