How to Get Your Kids to Eat Healthy and Boost Their Immune System

IMG_7029_3You may have heard that the flu has been making the rounds and it’s spreading quickly – even (gasp!) the Swine Flu. There are the general measures to take such as repeatedly washing hands, avoid touching one’s nose and mouth and avoiding sick kids, but perhaps one of the more overlooked ways to protect your child is just plain ‘ol feeding them healthy foods that will help boost their immune systems. For me and my picky eaters, this is a lot easier said than done. So, Breezy Mama spoke to Christine Wood, M.D. author of How to Get Kids to Eat Great and Love It! for tips on feeding those tiny people their veggies, foods to avoid giving them, advice for picky eaters, how not to become a short order cook and more.

Listen, my hubby and I put vegetables on our kids’s plates every night, but we’re realizing they’re rarely touched. What’s your advice for getting them to actually eat them?

Sometimes parents put so much pressure on eating the vegetables, that kids will actually run the other direction! Forcing, bribing or nagging can eventually work against having kids try new foods. For those picky eaters in general here are some tips:

  • Show your own enjoyment of eating the vegetables or whatever foods they are resisting trying. Remember you need to be the role model as parents!
  • For the little ones, cutting vegetables into fun shapes or creating some food art on the plate may encourage them.
  • Call foods funny names I had one dad who made up a song about asparagus and all the kids would wave the asparagus like conductors and then eat the asparagus after the song.
  • Encourage children to take one bite of everything on their plate, but again, don’t battle them on this. Kids can sometimes be asked to do this as a “thank you bite” to thank the person who grew the food or prepared the food. For the ultra-picky eater who won’t easily take the one bite, start by having them touch or smell or lick the food to start and consider that a “win.” Besides visually having it on their plate, using their other senses to experience the food should be considered an important road to the process of trying the food. It can take 8 to 15 times exposures to food before a child to like a food and that can include the other sensory exposures.
  • IMG_5278Also, understand the portion sizes for younger children. Parents often load up plates with adult-size portions. For children under 5 years, about 1 tablespoon per year of age of fruits or vegetables is considered a serving. As an example, 2 tablespoons of peas if they are 2 years old, 4 tablespoons if they are 4 years old. Give them less than you think they will eat and they feel like they will please you by asking for seconds. For that ultra picky eater, I have parents put just a tablespoon of each food on their plate to start and then go from there.
  • Realize that toddlers in that 1 to 3 year range have small appetites and don’t seem to need to eat as much. Their appetites can vary day-to-day and from meal-to-meal. Often breakfast or lunch are their biggest meal and if that is the case, focus on feeding them more at those meals. Dinner is often their lightest meal – at the end of the day, they are tired, there may be more distractions with siblings and both parents home. Since the toddler is going to be going to bed soon, it may not be in their best interest to eat a large dinner anyway (of course, dad’s who only see their child at dinner may take this as an eating challenge and a place to battle their child, but they shouldn’t!).
  • Fruits have a lot of shared vitamins and minerals with the vegetables, so offer fruits with your meals as well to help your kids are getting more servings in of the fruit and vegetable category.

I have two daughters and one thing that has been drilled into me is to be careful not to make food about control –a.k.a. arguing about them finishing their meal – which can lead to eating disorders later in life. Along those same lines, I’ve also been told a child will eat the amount they are hungry for and not to “force” them to eat their meal. So, how do I get the veggies in while avoiding a mealtime battle?

Young children are generally able to “self-regulate” the amount of food to eat. If parents start to force kids to eat more or be part of the “clean plate” club, they can do more harm than good. It is a parent’s job to figure out what to offer their children and when to feed them and a child’s job to figure out how much of that to eat.

IMG_5954Can parents help avoid common illnesses such as the flu and colds with good nutrition?

Antioxidant rich foods, generally the fruits and vegetables have a lot of immune boosting power. The more colors of the rainbow eaten, the more variety in the antioxidants the child will receive. In addition, healthy omega-3 fats as found in nuts, seeds and fatty fish are immune boosters. The trans fats, which are the partially hydrogenated fats found in a lot of processed foods, will deplete the omega-3 fats, in addition, to being very heart-unhealthy, these should be avoided.

Why has childhood obesity been on the rise and what steps can parents do to avoid obesity in their children?

There are many reasons for the increase in childhood obesity. Our food industry and our built environment have contributed to offering our children choices that can make the unhealthy choice be the easy choice. If there are many fast food restaurants offered within a mile of a person’s home or school, if there are not safe play areas or streets to walk or bike, then choosing to eat fruits and vegetables or getting exercise becomes difficult. Of course, parents are helping their young children learn and make choices, so their influence is highly important. Here are some ideas to help children avoid some of the daily traps we fall into:

  • Make sure kids are getting daily opportunities for exercise along with the parents! Walking to school if possible with your kids, planning family outdoor activities and making sure your kids just get out and play are important lessons to be learned.
  • Turn off the screens. Children under 2 should not be watching TV according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and older children should be limited to 1 to 2 hours a day of combined recreational screen time (includes TV, computer, video games). Have TV-free nights or weeks (if you dare!). Have family game nights or take a family walk at the park. Many families set the rule for no TV on school nights. Allow discussion with children about the intent of commercials – they do not always have the best interest of the viewers in mind and they are marketing tools to create buying habits.
  • Watch the juices, sodas and empty calorie choices. What parents buy and bring into the house, will generally get consumed – have you noticed that? Not buying sodas for the house and limiting the amount and choices of junk food in the home is something to keep an eye on. Most families eat out enough, that kids will find these choices elsewhere often enough. Even juice needs to be limited. The American Academy of Pediatrics says to limit juice to less than 4 to 6 ounces a day of juice for children 1 to 6 years old and no more than 8 to 12 ounces a day for children over 7 years old. Use 100% juice, most juice drinks are no more than water and sugar.
  • IMG_4871On the flip side, we can’t be restricting all junk foods and treats. Studies have shown that kids who live in a restricted eating environment (e.g., being told they can never eat candy), can actually seek these foods to a higher degree as they get older and can make their own choices.
  • Families who eat together, tend to have healthier eating patterns, so try to find time for family meals and no TV during mealtime is another important rule. Have children and adults have one good thing or funny thing about their day. Or have a game where they tell one thing about their day and the others have to guess if it really happened or not. Sometimes taking the focus off eating itself will encourage kids to eat better.
  • Try to have kids eat a fruit and or vegetable at every meal and snack. If that is the goal, they will easily get their 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

51F8ZXSHJRL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_Can you give us some examples of your strategies to feed kids healthy?

Avoid lots of juices, sodas and milk as substitutes for eating real food. Some kids will fill up on the fluids and not have much left for the food choices. Too much milk (more than about 24 ounces a day) can lead to iron deficiency anemia. If they love their milk, give them only 4 to 6 ounces with meals and/or let them have their milk at the end of the meal. Limit juice to less than about 6 ounces a day (and make sure it is 100% juice for the most nutritional value!).

Avoid frequent snacking habits. Avoid snacks in the car or while standing around and playing. Your kids should not be eating just because they are bored or complaining. Your child should get 2 small snacks in the day, but they should not be grazing all day. They should not start into the habit of eating in front of the TV (OK what are mom and dad doing? Remember they are the role models!) or while playing outside. Eating should occur in the dining area while seated while at home.

What are some healthy desserts?

Do we really need dessert every night? If you are in that rut, you may want to consider just having desserts on certain nights. Try to include fruits as part of desserts and offer fruit as dessert by itself! Some healthier ideas – make your own frozen fruit popsicles with yogurt and fresh fruit or 100% fruit juice. There are also store-bought popsicles that are more fruit based. Other ideas: yogurt or non-fat frozen yogurt with fruit and granola, vanilla yogurt with a little bit of honey and cinnamon, oatmeal raisin cookies. Some indulgences — like dark chocolate has antioxidants in it.

I have three kids but don’t want to feel like a short order cook. How do I deal with one kid liking a particular dinner and another not?

Sometimes a child will demand only one food type at every meal and the parent ends back in the kitchen, cooking meal #2. Many times it is the starchy carbohydrates that are their comfort food. Don’t fall into the habit of giving in every time to what they always want to eat and don’t be a short-order cook. Have your kids have their own night of the week that they can plan a meal with mom, just explain it has to be a balanced meal and include a protein, grains, and something from the fruit and vegetable category. Maybe include them in the shopping event too, so they pick the produce and items for the meal. Again be very neutral and not alarmed if they refuse what you offer. If they refuse dinner, just say something like, “I am very sorry you chose not to eat tonight and you are hungry. You can have a big breakfast when you wake up tomorrow.” Try to include something healthy in the meal that they may eat, like some fruit salad for example.

WoodPhoto_000About Dr. Wood:

Christine (Ito) Wood, M.D., C.L.E. is a practicing pediatrician and certified lactation educator with interests in healthy nutrition for children and the environmental and nutritional impact on health and disease. She is a compelling voice on the subject of children’s nutritional and environmental issues.

She is the author of the book, How to Get Kids to Eat Great and Love It! (third edition, KidsEatGreat, Inc, 2006). Filled with practical, easy-to-understand information for parents, she backs it up with science-based research to emphasize the nutritional links to disease. She maintains a website, My Kids Doctor Visit, launched in 1997. It is a website for parents designed to give information on common illnesses, like colds, ear infections, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and more. Kids Weigh to Go is her program targeting families with overweight children.

She is currently practicing general pediatrics at El Camino Pediatrics along with Breezy Mama’s Go-to Swine Flu expert, Dr. Shakha Gillin.

To purchase Dr. Wood’s book, How to Get Kids to Eat Great and Love It!
click here.

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  1. The best gift I asked for last Christmas was our Breville Juice Fountain (on the pricey side, but so worth it). I use it solely for vegetables (we use our blender for fruit smoothies). Since veggies are harder for kids to get into I got creative with juicing kale, spinach, carrots, celery, cucumber, a small slice of ginger root and one apple for taste. I have added red peppers before for added color benefit. If my 3 year old doesn’t eat the veggies on her plate at dinnertime I know that I have her “power juice” to fall back on after dinner—she loves it! My husband and I benefit from it too. I do add a little bit more apple juice to hers though for added sweetener. But to know that my daughter is consuming kale at 3 feels great! Especially with the swine flu scare among us. With the “power juice” I feel like I’m already fighting against any sickness. The vaccine will simply be a safety net.


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