Feeding children healthy diets can be very challenging – Earth.com

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While many parents of preschool and elementary-aged children aim to provide balanced, nutritious diets, certain strategies intended to promote healthy eating may not always produce the desired outcomes, according to insights from the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.

Accommodation to children’s diet preferences

A significant finding from the report indicates that three in five parents will prepare different meals if their child rejects the family’s meal choice, demonstrating a high level of accommodation to children’s preferences.

Additionally, the poll reveals that one in eight parents enforces a rule requiring children to finish everything on their plate. 

Healthy diets for children

Moreover, despite recognizing that the standard American diet, rich in saturated fats and sugars, is not ideal for children, only a small proportion of parents have explored alternative, potentially healthier diets at home.

“Feeding young children can be challenging due to general pickiness, hesitancy to try unfamiliar foods, and constantly evolving food preferences,” said Mott Poll co-director and Mott pediatrician Susan Woolford, M.D., emphasizing the crucial nature of early childhood as a period for establishing lifelong healthy eating patterns. 

“Parents’ concern about whether their child is eating enough or if they’re getting the nutrients they need may lead them to adopt practices that actually sabotage their efforts to get kids to have healthy eating habits in the short and long term.”

Standard American diet and children 

The poll, based on responses from 1,083 parents of children aged 3-10 surveyed in February, provided a broad overview of parental beliefs and practices concerning their children’s nutrition.

The results revealed that a third of parents believe the standard American diet is healthy compared to half who rank the Mediterranean higher in nutritional value. However, few have tried alternative diets for their child.

Excess intake of calories

“Parents may recognize the standard diet in the U.S. includes high amounts of saturated fats, added sugars, sodium, and refined carbohydrates, which can generate an excess intake of calories beyond nutritional needs and contribute to health problems,” Woolford said. 

“However, despite this recognition and evidence suggesting that other diet options may help avoid many illnesses, only about 9% have tried the Mediterranean diet for their children and fewer have tried giving their children a vegetarian diet.”

Balanced approach to children’s diets

In addition, Woolford stressed the importance of ensuring that children receive sufficient nutrition when experimenting with diets that exclude certain food groups. For instance, diets that limit animal products need to incorporate alternative protein sources like meat substitutes, tofu, or legumes.

The poll also explored family dining rules, which can either promote or hinder a child’s healthy diet. About fifteen percent of parents enforce a rule that children must finish what’s on their plate, potentially encouraging overconsumption, particularly if portion sizes are too large.

Woolford advocates for a more balanced approach: “Requiring children to eat everything on their plate, or withholding dessert unless all other foods are eaten, can lead to overconsumption, especially if portion sizes are too large for the child’s age.”

Offering a healthy range of foods

Instead, she supports a model where “parents provide, and the child decides.” This strategy involves parents offering a range of healthy foods and letting children decide which to eat and how much, thus respecting their natural hunger cues and preferences.

According to Woolford, sixty percent of parents prepare separate meals if their children reject what’s served at mealtime, which often results in less nutritious alternatives.

“Rather than allowing the child to choose an alternate menu, parents should provide a balanced meal with at least one option that their child is typically willing to eat,” she advised.

Woolford also emphasizes the importance of parental modeling in dietary habits, noting that children often emulate the behaviors they observe. Moreover, avoiding snacks between meals is also likely to help children have a better appetite and increase their willingness to eat offered foods.

Biggest challenges faced by parents 

The survey confirmed that parents often face significant challenges when it comes to ensuring their children eat a healthy diet. Key issues include dealing with picky eaters, the higher cost of nutritious food, and concerns about food waste. A smaller number of parents reported that time constraints make it difficult to prepare healthy meals.

Introducing vegetables 

According to survey data, nearly all parents have attempted at least one strategy to encourage their children to eat vegetables, which includes daily servings, preparing vegetables in a way that appeals to their children, introducing new vegetables, and allowing children to choose vegetables during shopping.

Some parents also engage their children in the preparation of vegetables, incorporate vegetables into other dishes, or offer rewards for eating vegetables. 

“Unsurprisingly, parents said pickiness and getting kids to eat veggies were among major challenges during mealtimes,” Woolford said. “Parents should try to include children in meal decisions, avoid pressuring food consumption and provide a variety of healthy options at each meal so kids feel more control.”

Portion control

Portion control presents another difficulty for many parents, as properly sizing meals is crucial for preventing childhood obesity

The survey revealed that nearly 70% of parents serve their children slightly smaller portions than those given to adults, while others let children decide their portion sizes, rely on pre-measured portions, or serve children adult-sized portions.

To aid in appropriate portion sizing, Woolford recommends utilizing resources like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “MyPlate,” which offers visual guidelines for balancing food groups and managing portion sizes.

Identifying unhealthy food options at the grocery store

Grocery shopping is a critical starting point for healthy eating. Parents in the survey indicated that they limit their children’s intake of foods with added sugars and processed ingredients. However, identifying unhealthy options can be challenging due to deceptive marketing. 

“Parents should read labels, avoiding the marketing on the front of packages and focusing instead on the details on the back. They should pay particular attention to nutrition information and ingredient lists – especially if they’re long with unrecognizable items – as well as sodium, added sugars, and fat,” Woolford advises.

She also suggests making grocery shopping an educational and engaging activity for children. “Have them help in the process of choosing the healthiest options, not ones that necessarily directly advertise to children, but foods that they are willing to try that are lower in sugar, fat and salt,” she said. 

“Spend most of the time in the produce section and try to make it fun by maybe selecting new options from different parts of the world that they haven’t tried before.” This approach not only promotes healthy eating but also encourages children to explore and enjoy a variety of foods.


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