Dr. Natalie Muth, M.D., a pediatrician based in Carlsbad, Calif., and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that MyPlate, a website maintained by the United States Department of Agriculture which outlines the agency’s dietary guidelines, can help parents plan healthy, balanced meals. It recommends that meals include lots of fruits and vegetables, with some whole grains and protein. The guidelines can be adjusted to accommodate different eating lifestyles, like gluten-free or vegetarian, she said.
It’s never too early to start healthy-eating conversations with your children, and continuing that dialogue at every stage of their development can help foster lifelong healthy habits, said Dr. Muth. You can put this into practice by eating together as a family as often as possible, and by involving kids in food shopping and cooking to expose them to fruits and vegetables at an early age.
As children get older, studies suggest that families who eat together at mealtimes tend to have higher-quality diets with more fruits and vegetables and less fast food and sugary beverages.
To help expand even your pickiest eater’s palate, Dr. Muth suggested serving everyone the same foods at mealtimes. If your child still turns up her nose at a certain item, don’t worry. It may take several tries before she eats it.
Alexis Petersen, 37, a content marketing director in Ann Arbor, Mich., said that when she grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, she ate most of her meals in front of the television. Now, she focuses on “joyful mealtimes” with her children — who are 7 and 3 — and serves everyone the same foods, allowing them to eat as little or as much of what’s on their plates as they want. Petersen’s son is a picky eater, so she relies on familiar dishes, like tacos, and introduces new fillings to encourage him to try new things. This approach has been mostly successful, she said.
Don’t ‘yuck’ someone else’s ‘yum.’
Keeping all conversations around food positive and avoiding making negative comments about their child’s or anyone else’s appearance or eating patterns can help strengthen your child’s relationship with food, said Dr. Muth. Kids may internalize negative remarks and, in turn, may food shame others or develop unhealthy eating habits or disordered eating.
“I encourage parents, whatever choices they’ve made around being healthy — whatever that means to them — or around certain meal patterns, to try to be positive about it,” Dr. Muth said.
Positive conversations should center on “eating real food, as much as you can, having lots of fruits and vegetables and listening to your body’s cues for hunger and fullness,” she said, adding that there should be no “forbidden” foods.
Hitt teaches her son “not to yuck someone’s yum,” she said, and to avoid commenting on what others eat. Another rule: He has to try something before saying he doesn’t like it. She said he’s fairly open to trying most things, but vegetables are a struggle.
Never bring weight into healthy-eating conversations.
Weight-focused conversations with younger kids can manifest later as low self-esteem, unhealthy body image and disordered eating during adolescence, when children are most susceptible to these health conditions, said Jerica Berge, Ph.D., an associate professor and vice chair for research at the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.
A study Dr. Berge published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2013, for instance, found that teens whose parents had weight-related conversations with them were more likely to diet, embrace unhealthy weight-control behaviors and binge eat than those whose parents had conversations focused on healthy eating alone.
Getting the messaging right early on — so that it doesn’t cause harm later — is challenging, Dr. Berge said, since any discussion about eating vegetables or exercising can become harmful when it’s suggested in the service of losing weight.
Instead, talk about positive outcomes or behaviors that interest the child, like athletic ability, for example.
In the end, don’t stress too much over your kids’ diets.
Parents often feel pressure — whether from other parents or from health-related content online — to obsess over their children’s diets or to measure those diets against those of other kids. But Dr. Muth said they should decide what’s best for their family, and not to worry about what others do.
This content was originally published here.